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NCLB in Indiana

An interesting article that points out that if schools are struggling, it might be of their own doing - if they didn't start effective changes early enough, they won't be able to catch up to meet standards. Something that most reporters fail to note.

Giving up isn’t aim of No Child Left Behind

In this commentary, the first of a series, Andrea Neal reports from Fort Wayne.

It is the epitome of a struggling urban school. Almost all its students are poor. Eighty percent are minorities. Twenty percent struggle with English. Eighteen percent are in special ed. Its passage rate on the ISTEP+ test was 42?percent in 2005, compared to a statewide average of 73?percent.

Fort Wayne’s Geyer Middle School is just what Congress had in mind when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act. The 2001 law was supposed to increase accountability and raise achievement at the nation’s public schools.

It didn’t work for Geyer, which will close its doors for good Thursday. Next fall, its students will be sent to other middle schools in this city of 250,000. Over the summer, Geyer will be spiffed up, renamed and converted into a magnet Montessori program serving a different population.

“We wanted to be proactive,” Geoff Paddock, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board, said of the decision to close Geyer. “We wanted to improve a neighborhood on the south side. We wanted to see what we could do ourselves before the government told us what to do.”

The community explanation sounds sensible, but it can’t mask the underlying admission: School officials couldn’t fix Geyer. Like a partner in a bad marriage, they opted to do away with the old model and start from scratch.

Under NCLB, failing schools must improve dramatically or face sanctions, including the prospect of a takeover by the state. For four years in a row, Geyer failed to meet achievement targets.

It’s not for lack of trying, said John Kline, director of school improvement systems for FWCS. “We’ve tried multiple different principals. Almost every principal made a little bit of gain, but it doesn’t hold. The task is complex.?… Test scores didn’t respond in a way that looked like they were accelerating fast enough to avoid the sanctions of NCLB.”

NCLB was signed into law amid fear and fanfare. Its bipartisan supporters hoped that federal teeth and incentives would force struggling school systems to raise standards, expectations and test scores. Critics predicted that federal meddling would make things worse as schools lost flexibility over curriculum and testing. To some degree, the predictions of both have come true.

According to a recent Center on Education Policy report, the percentage of students scoring at proficient levels or higher on standardized tests is rising, as hoped. “Evidence from our study suggests that increased learning accounts for some of the improvement in state test results,” the report stated.

Yet the number of schools classified as failing is rising, too. NCLB requires that schools record achievement gains every year and among all subcategories of students: black, white, non-English speaking, even special ed. By 2014, 100?percent of students are to be proficient in math and language arts.

An unreachable goal? Maybe. Less than half – 49.3?percent – of Indiana schools met Adequate Yearly Progress targets in 2005, down considerably from 60?percent in 2004, 76?percent in 2003 and 77?percent in 2002. Geyer is in the vanguard of what will be a long list of schools that face restructuring or state takeover.

In Fort Wayne, school officials gave up on Geyer before the full range of sanctions could kick in. Liam Julian of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a school reform organization, said that’s a good thing if students end up at better schools.

“What you have to do is bite the bullet, close that school down, find other ways to give those students more educational choice options,” Julian said. “If there is a school that has repeatedly failed to demonstrate progress, we think the students ought to have the opportunity to go to a better school.”

Geyer’s students either applied to a new school through the district’s public school-choice program or accepted automatic reassignment based on geographic factors. The biggest group will go to Miami Middle School, which has higher test scores than Geyer’s but like Geyer has spent four consecutive years on the failing schools list. All but one of Fort Wayne’s middle schools missed improvement goals for 2005. So, in essence, the kids are leaving one underachieving school for another.

That fact points to what might be the biggest challenge of No Child Left Behind: Figuring out how to quickly fix failing schools. If NCLB is to be a success, we can’t just give up on schools like Geyer. We must transform them.

Monday: The phrase “scientifically based research” is found 111 times in the text of the No Child Left Behind Act. Could scientifically based research have saved Geyer?
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.