"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Best Education Reporting 2008: The Missoulian

Beyond the big corporate desks of the Times, the Post, the Trib, and the Times (LA), there are medium and small town papers around this great country with some first-class reporters who still believe in collecting, writing, and reporting the news without the filters of editorial boards paid for by the education-industrial complex. Even with all the resources available to them, I have not seen anything in the "newspapers of record" that comes close the scope and clarity of this piece on NCLB by Michael Moore (not that one) for the Missoulian:
Educators say No Child Left Behind has blocked progress
By MICHAEL MOORE of the Missoulian

The next Congress has the task of renewing and likely revising the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a law that is applauded in theory and mostly despised in practice.

Passed in 2001, the law embodied the notion of school accountability, then proceeded to set standards that will ultimately categorize nearly every school in the country as a failure.

“Accountability is a good thing, but what the law really is is a recipe for failure,” said Jack Sturgis, a veteran teacher and president of the Missoula Education Association. “The bill is designed to fail public education.”

Said Alex Apostle, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools: “No Child Left Behind is punitive. It actually makes what we do - and what we do is student achievement - more difficult.”

Nearly every education-related group in Montana has come together to push for changes in the law, which is essentially the current incarnation of the historic 1965 Elementary and Secondary School Act.

“We've all come together and produced a position paper that lays out the problems as we see them,” said Linda McCulloch, state superintendent of public instruction.

That paper is five pages long and details problems the law has created in Montana, where schools never suffered from some of the ailments the law was designed to fix.

“This law is basically designed to deal with large metropolitan school districts - Houston, Texas, to be specific - and it's not very well suited to helping with the problems we have here in Montana,” McCulloch said. “I'm very hopeful that we can see some changes made.”

No Child Left Behind increased the standards of accountability for schools, school districts and states in two areas - reading and math.

Not surprisingly, that's one of the complaints about the law.

“If you are an elementary school teacher and you are supposed to focus on math and reading, that means more minutes,” said Sturgis. “More minutes for reading and math means less minutes for social studies and science and art and music. Why are those subjects suddenly less valuable?”

The law set an escalating series of goals - dubbed AYP, for adequate yearly progress - with the ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014. The 100 percent means exactly that: One child can fail a school.

That, educators say, is a horrible burden to place on students, teachers and parents.

“It's not possible for all children in all schools to be proficient,” said Gail Becker, assistant superintendent for MCPS. “And it's not fair to put that on the backs of those students and their parents.”

In the most recent round of tests, which take place in March, three of every 10 Montana schools fell short of No Child standards, even though most schools improved year over year. The year before, the number had been one in 10, and the decline is directly linked to the escalating standards of the law.

For 2007-08, the proficiency threshold for reading moved from 74 percent to 83 percent. Math targets climbed from 51 to 68 percent.

For Missoula County schools, districtwide proficiency numbers beat the standards, but 10 of 14 schools failed to meet AYP.

“What's unfortunate is that, even though all our schools showed improvement, it's not enough to meet the targets,” said Becker. “So we're improving our scores, but we're designated a failure.”

That's another complaint about the law. Instead of measuring progress and encouraging improvement, No Child Left Behind sets unachievable goals that even the best districts and schools can't meet.

Montana education groups have this to say about 100 percent proficiency in their position paper:

“If unchanged, it will make every public school a ‘failure,' without helping individual children. This in turn harms public support for education by giving the completely false impression that public schools are not providing a good education.” And that's not true, Sturgis said.

“There is an assumption that we weren't doing the job in this country before No Child Left Behind,” he said. “We are the most productive society in the world, so it's not like public schools have somehow failed this country. Could we do better? Sure. But we're not failures.”

That said, educators don't have a problem with the fundamental idea behind NCLB - accountability.

“This district is all about student achievement,” said Apostle. “And there's no question we need to be accountable in terms of achievement.”

But No Child issued a mostly unfunded mandate about achievement and “high-quality teachers” that schools and districts can't abide.

“The funding for NCLB is widely acknowledged as insufficient to meet the mandates of the law,” the Montana position paper states. “In addition, NCLB expects all students to achieve proficiency, yet the major federal program (IDEA, or special education) to fund one of the subgroups most in need of services to achieve that goal is sadly underfunded.”

That points to another aspect of No Child Left Behind that works in theory but not in practice. The law rightly notes that certain subgroups - the poor, special ed students and Native Americans - need additional help to meet the goals, but does nothing to affect the root causes of problems for those groups.

“If you look across the country, you see schools in the most poverty-stricken areas failing the worst,” McCulloch said. “NCLB rightly focuses attention on the shortfall those children have in performance, but it doesn't do anything about the conditions that create the problem.”

Jack Sturgis has a story about a young girl at Missoula's Hawthorne School, but it could be any school.

She's a smart girl, but nearly everything in her life has gone wrong.

“Her life is pretty miserable, she's homeless some of the time,” Sturgis said. “Her parents are divorced and abusive. We have a whole raft of people working with her and what they want is to let her sit in the back of the classroom and maybe grasp a little bit of what's going on.”

That would probably be a good thing, but there's a problem.

“I would love to do that, if that would make her happy, but there's a problem,” he said. “I have to get her to pass a test in March and she's not going to do that. Everything is stacked against her. So she fails and I fail and the school fails.”

McCulloch, Becker and Sturgis all said the law takes almost no notice of how children differ, how they learn differently, how some measure of improvement for a child might be an incredible accomplishment rather than a failure.

“It does a pretty poor job of recognizing that kids are all different,” McCulloch said.

Special education students, the Montana consortium argues, deserve special attention, but they should be evaluated based on a plan designed specifically for each child, not by some broad, federal standard. The same is true of children in poverty, children who are still learning English and some ethnic minorities.

“While we strongly support focusing on subgroups of children such as ethnic minorities, the AYP structure means they can be blamed for the failure of a school,” the Montana position paper states. “This has already caused increased racial tension in Montana. Education should make it easier for us to live together, not harder.”

While NCLB recognizes the disadvantages of some students, it's created a dynamic where some of the best students get less attention from teachers who are trying to rescue the low achievers.

“It's a pretty simple equation,” Sturgis said. “If you spend more of your time at the bottom, you're ignoring the top.”

So, what should be done with a law that purports to fix a problem but really just meddles with the symptoms?

Some educators nationwide are asking that No Child Left Behind be scrapped in favor of starting over.

Sturgis, McCulloch, Becker and Apostle don't go that far, but it's clear they'd love to see the Montana congressional delegation push for changes.

Better funding for federal requirements would help, of course, but Montana educators are suggesting more sweeping revisions. Here are the ideas, as set forth in the position paper signed by seven Montana education groups, including McCulloch's office:

Change the 100 percent proficiency.

Find a way to determine whether the focus on math and reading is harming students in other subjects.

Look at the requirements for “highly qualified teachers,” which create hiring difficulties for Montana's small, rural school districts.

Restore local and state control.

Don't stigmatize subgroups such as special ed students and Native Americans.

When there are consequences for schools that perform poorly, make them helpful instead of hurtful.

“We feel like those changes would make the law useful,” McCulloch said. “I'm hopeful and I think people in Montana, both Democrats and Republicans, would like to see the law change for the better.”

Sturgis wants the big changes, of course, but he also wants the small ones, the ones that help the girl at Hawthorne.

“You can't fix her problem with test scores,” he said. “You've got to look at the whole child. She's more than just her reading and math scores, and her success or failure is not measured by how she does on those tests.”

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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