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NCLB Brings Rote Approach to Teaching

SHANKSVILLE, Pa. Constance Hummel has learned firsthand what it takes to leave no child behind.

She had to scramble a year ago when 16 of their 27 high school juniors failed Pennsylvania's statewide reading, writing and math test.

Without intensive help, the students were unlikely to graduate this spring. So, Ms. Hummel, middle and high school principal in the small Shanksville-Stonycreek School District, assembled a team of six teachers and a guidance counselor and launched a major one-on-one effort to tutor students and have them prepared to pass this year's test and graduate from the rural southwest Pennsylvania school.

"You will pass," Ms. Hummel remembers telling the students. "We will not let up on you until you do."

Educators nationwide have similar stories as they undertake extraordinary efforts to comply with President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. For better or worse, critics and supporters agree, the law enacted in 2001 is reshaping public education in ways that will be felt for decades.

"People who are critical say it will be the end of public education," said Eugene Hickok, an undersecretary at the Education Department. "No, it will be a very different public education. And I hope it will be a better public education."

Some educators, like Gary Singel, the superintendent of the Shanksville-Stonycreek School District, disagreed.

He thinks the art of teaching will be replaced by a rote approach that simply drills students for tests. "You will turn out kids that are not creative, inventive or come up with new ideas," he predicted.

The No Child Left Behind Act is seen as the most significant and sweeping change in federal education policy since a 1965 act that focused attention on disadvantaged students. And the latest effort is the bipartisan product of nearly two decades of rising dissatisfaction with deteriorating academic performance in the nation's elementary and secondary schools.

"An objective evaluation would say that after all these years since 1965, and all these billions of dollars that have been spent ... we can't really find much reason to celebrate," said Education Secretary Rod Paige.

The new regimen requires students to show progress on tests, teachers to improve their credentials and administrators to deal with the consequences if their charges fail to perform.

Moved to act

The seeds for reform were planted in 1983 with the publication of "A Nation at Risk," a report by a blue-ribbon commission full of dire warnings about the state of U.S. public education.
"The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and people," the report concluded.

A handful of states, including Texas, took the warning seriously and got a head start in developing testing regimens tied to grade promotion and school performance. About 1.3 million Texas students this year got a taste of what's ahead for children nationwide when they took the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests.

Embracing Mr. Bush's proposals to require similar standards and accountability at the federal level required a turnabout for Capitol Hill Republicans, who believed strongly that education was strictly a state and local concern. As recently as the 1990s they had called for the elimination of the Education Department.

But in approving the initiatives, advocated by Mr. Bush during his 2000 campaign, Republicans reversed course and embraced a well-funded federal role in education.

"It was an evolutionary thing where everyone came to the conclusion that we were in a crisis," said former GOP Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, now a public affairs consultant to youth and education groups.

The president is expected to tout his policies in next year's presidential campaign. But he can expect to hear criticisms from the traditional, and mostly liberal Democratic education community, as superintendents, principals and teachers are forced to rethink how they teach and assess students.

Critics are incredulous.

They said Republicans have mimicked what they previously accused Democrats of doing: creating a one-size-fits-all answer to an enormously complex issue. In doing so, educators charge that the administration has dumped an unfunded mandate on the states at a time when most are overwhelmed with fiscal crises.

"The education agenda is being controlled by people who are politicians," said Mr. Singel, the superintendent of the 492-student, single-school Shanksville-Stonycreek School District. "They are doing what is popular, but they do not understand what is needed in education."

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, agreed, saying testing and inflexible demands for annual progress create a high-stakes atmosphere that will cultivate failure and encourage students to drop out.

"The goals are good. But they will be very difficult, if not impossible to achieve with the way the law is framed," said Mr. Weaver, whose teachers group announced recently that it was preparing to sue the government for not providing enough money to school districts.

The challenges faced by the Shanksville-Stonycreek School District are familiar to many nationwide.

Similarities nationwide

Nearly 5,000 school districts, including about 600 in Texas, have fewer than 600 students; one third of the nation's children attend a rural school. And while rural and inner-city schools are different, they face remarkably similar struggles implementing the new law.
Specifically, No Child Left Behind requires that all students be proficient in reading, language arts, math and science by 2014. Grades three through eight will feel the greatest impact, but the legislation imposes significant changes throughout elementary and secondary education.

And throughout the next 11 years, educators and their schools must implement a series of complex and demanding policies designed to fulfill the overall goal of academic proficiency.

Just this last school year, all 50 states were successful in designing and obtaining Education Department approval of plans for testing students and measuring annual progress.

And failing grades will have consequences.

Teachers who do not become "highly qualified" by the 2005-06 school year could lose their jobs. Parents will be notified when schools do not show annual progress and can demand free tutoring and after-school assistance, and in some cases, move their children to other schools. Schools can also lose federal funding.

If a school fails to improve after five years, it faces major restructuring, including being turned over to the state and seeing teachers and administrators being fired.

Mr. Hickok, the senior education official, agreed that the new law poses special challenges for the country schoolhouse issues that prompted Mr. Paige to appoint a department task force to address their problems.

Even so, Mr. Hickok said, decades of disappointing reading, math and science scores demonstrate that the public school system is failing and must be fixed.

"Yes, there are stakes, and that is not a bad thing," he said. "There needs to be some relatively objective, valid measure of performance."

Taking it to heart

But 185 miles away in Shanksville, Mr. Singel worries about the consequences of those measures.
School is out for the summer, and there is time to think about the future. The hallways in the light-colored-brick school are quiet, and the 35 classrooms are empty in the K-12 school.

Shanksville, population 235, is about a 20-minute drive off the Pennsylvania Turnpike through rolling hills marked by summer crops and grazing cattle. The tiny hamlet is home to about two dozen old frame houses, two churches, an Amoco station that no longer pumps gas and Ida's Store.

The town was thrust onto the national map Sept. 11, 2001, when passengers tried to overpower terrorists and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a nearby field. But for the most part, Shanksville is a quiet place.

For this year, Ms. Hummel is pleased that 100 percent of her seniors graduated. In fact, she and other educators at Shanksville said they support the goals of testing and accountability embodied in the new law.

"We took it to heart," said Ms. Hummel, referring to this year's remedial effort.

Failing students were pulled out of study halls and their favorite elective classes such as woodshop. Instead, they studied and drilled on English and math a rigorous program that prompted their younger classmates to say they would drop out if they were next.

"It got down to one student. It was a happy day when he took the test and passed," Ms. Hummel said.

But she worries such a Herculean effort cannot be repeated.

Teachers attended after-school meetings and gave up daily planning periods to tutor students and they did so without asking for overtime pay. At one meeting, all Ms. Hummel had to offer was a light snack.

"I cannot continue to call on teachers that have already worked seven full classes and give them a cracker, cheese and a Coke," she said. "Give me the resources."

On one hand, the school lived up to the spirit of the law by not abandoning a single student. But Mr. Hickok said the experience illustrates that schools need to update curriculum so it covers the subjects students will be tested on.

"There will always be students who need extra care ... but after a while, that should be the exception," he said.

Share of hardships

Teachers at Shanksville said that effort is under way but it is creating hardships in the classroom and hurting the overall quality of education.
"One of the jokes around here is that in the fifth grade, you are going to be tested for everything you need to know in life," said Paulette Denner, 45, a fifth-grade teacher who has been at Shanksville for 15 years.

She said that Pennsylvania's statewide tests are requiring schools to "push down" the curriculum, meaning students are taught material they otherwise would not have received until later grades. For instance, her fifth-graders are tackling middle school math, such as algebraic equations.

And the tougher subject matter is affecting more than what goes on the chalkboard. Recess time has been cut, assemblies curtailed and classes have to cover more ground, leaving less time for questions and discussion.

"Fifth-graders are very curious, and they have a lot of questions," Mrs. Denner said.

And she also worries about the consequences if her students do poorly and cause the school to get bad marks. "Some get it, some don't," she said. "They want to do well, but it is just beyond them."

Ms. Denner's colleague Rebecca Hutzell is also feeling the pressure to make her students perform.

Ms. Hutzell, 33, teaches special education, students with learning disabilities or high-functioning mental retardation. And her mandate seems staggering.

Under No Child Left Behind, Ms. Hutzell's 19 students must show annual progress just like the school's other students. And if they fail, the entire school can be classified as "needing improvement" a designation that must be disclosed to parents and requires expensive remedial efforts.

So, she is responding by trying to accelerate the learning process for students who already are two years behind. "It sounds like an excuse," she said. "It is not an excuse. It is life."

Back in the superintendent's office, Mr. Singel is trying to deal with issues his school faces.

The worries seem endless: He speculates parents might file lawsuits if schools fail to perform, the school's teacher aides eventually will have to augment their training and he must have a certified English as a second language teacher even though he has not a single non-English speaking student.

And if his school is found deficient, the law allows parents to send their children to another school in the district. But Shanksville is a single-school district, which means Mr. Singel would have to find the funds to hire tutors and other outside experts to help students.

All of these requirements, he contends, will not improve education.

Making an exit

So, after 35 years in education, including 28 in Shanksville, Mr. Singel said he would be among the first educators to head for the door. He said the 2003-04 school year would be his last.
"It used to be a challenge, and you got to see the kids grow," said Mr. Singel, 55. "Now, it is just very stressful."

Rosemarie Tipton, Shankville's elementary principal, however, sees a silver lining.

She also worries about the pressures and the lack of resources. But Ms. Tipton is more optimistic than many of her colleagues about using No Child Left Behind.

"For the first time we are really looking at how we can improve schools," she said.

For instance, Ms. Tipton said the data provided by testing could be used to identify areas of weakness and help educators improve curriculum. "As an administrator," she said, "you can pinpoint problems much easier ... and can develop a strategy."

Bush education officials are encouraging school districts to learn from one another's "best practices." And, within the confines of Shanksville, Ms. Tipton said she is on the case.

She has a senior teacher who is a statewide "Teacher of the Year" but who is nearing retirement. So, Ms. Tipton has been sitting in on her classes so she can pass along the teacher's best techniques to others part of her strategy for making sure her school shows annual progress.

"I am looking at all my teachers' scores," she said. "We'll see where they are not achieving and punch that up and get the kids to that level."

But like other educators, Ms. Tipton said she needs more money. And she also has other concerns about implementation: Frustrated teachers may leave the profession, and students seem to be picking up on their angst as things like the arts, in-class videos and even first-grade coloring are pushed aside so more time can be spent on academics.

"The tests are hard for the kids, and they get scared," Ms. Tipton said. "The teachers make a big deal of it because there are high stakes for the teachers."

Even so, Ms. Tipton has some advice for her teachers: Stop complaining and get to work.

Unlike some state-level initiatives that come and go with elected politicians, No Child Left Behind was codified into federal law and is here to stay.

"They think they can stomp their feet and not do it. It's not going to work this time," she said.

— Robert Dodge
With No Child Left Behind, few schools left untouched
Dallas Morning News
August 3, 2003


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