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NCLB in Indiana part 3

This is the last part on the series about NCLB. It was interesting to see that educators see the absolute need for all kids (well, actually only 99%, which the article missed), should have basic skills in math and english, etc.

No Child Left Behind sets unreachable goals

Mary Lowery came to Geyer Middle School with a mandate: to close with as much sensitivity as possible a failing school. Yet she harbors no bitterness toward the law that sealed Geyer’s fate.

“I don’t tend to look at things as a negative,” she says. “It is a mandate. This is what we have to do. It’s accountability. It’s holding all districts and schools accountable for the students’ learning.”

After four years on the No Child Left Behind failing school list, the Fort Wayne middle school closed for good June 1. Administrators say the school had been on the district’s radar screen for years; that NCLB merely hastened its demise.

Under NCLB, public schools face escalating consequences each year they miss achievement goals. Title 1 schools face sanctions first: parents get to switch their children to other public schools and obtain tutoring and remedial services. By year four, schools must take steps to reopen as charter schools, replace principals and staff, contract for private management or allow a state takeover.

At least three Indiana schools have closed as a result of NCLB; state education officials have yet to assume management of a failing school.

Don’t count on that happening on any large scale, says Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White. “They don’t have the capacity or the expertise to get that done,” he said.

If testing trends continue, however, dozens of schools will qualify for state control. Fewer than half of Indiana schools met the federal government’s Adequate Yearly Progress standards in 2005, part of a continuous downward trend since the law took effect. Every year, more students are required to meet proficiency standards. By 2014, 100 percent of students are to show mastery on standardized tests. No group is exempt, including those who speak little English and those with special education challenges.

Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the law establishes an unreachable target for schools. “They’re all going to fail” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

White agrees. “Eventually in Indiana we will evolve to the point of very few if any schools making AYP.” The only exceptions, he said, would be schools that are small, affluent and homogeneous.

Many school-related advocacy groups are lobbying Congress for changes to the AYP requirements and for more money to fund remedial programs. Yet few are calling for repeal of the law, which has focused a spotlight on the nation’s educational system and, in the view of many experts, already boosted achievement.

Marlin B. Creasy, superintendent of Muncie Community Schools, said one of the greatest benefits is that schools can’t satisfy the law’s requirements just by having high overall test scores.

“School districts can no longer find comfort in the district or the individual school excelling, unless every sub-category is also showing marked improvement,” Creasy said. “NCLB rightfully focused attention on the achievement gaps that exists within our schools. I believe it has forced school districts to seek academic improvement for every child.”

But the law goes too far, he said, by penalizing schools if a single group of students fails to meet AYP. Another “glaring weakness,” he said, “is the lack of focus on continuous academic improvement for the individual child. The year-to-year snapshot does not follow the child. I am more interested in continuous improvement.”

The Center on Education Policy, an independent education advocacy group, has studied the effects of NCLB closely and offers a similarly mixed review.

On the plus side, “NCLB is changing teaching and instruction. There is a better use of test data and alignment of curriculum and instruction to standards,” the center reports. Chief weaknesses include “inadequate state and federal funding to cover costs related to increased testing, data collection and technical assistance to schools in need of improvement.”

If NCLB is to succeed, it will be because states take seriously their constitutional responsibility for public education. The Indiana Department of Education doesn’t need to run schools, but it should insist that chronically failing schools convert into charters based on models that work, like KIPP Academy. It should make sure families trapped in bad schools are given a wide range of alternatives. It should seek changes in collective bargaining so merit pay and signing bonuses can be offered to lure the best teachers into the worst schools. Where research exists to suggest superior curriculum or instructional methods, the state should endorse those strategies.

Money itself does not make better schools. Federal intrusion does not make better schools. Forty years of Title 1, and a widening achievement gap, are testament to that.