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Superintendents Speak Out Against NCLB
In a rare show of unity, more than 100 school superintendents from 14 Pennsylvania counties gathered in Norristown yesterday to show their distaste for the federal education law No Child Left Behind and to suggest fixes.
The superintendents said that the federal rules were costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement in each district and that the money could be put to better use helping struggling students.
"I don't think No Child Left Behind tells us anything we didn't know before," said Joseph O'Brien, superintendent of the Springfield district in Delaware County, noting that research shows that disabled students and poor students generally don't do as well as their wealthier and nondisabled peers.
In the Abington district in Montgomery County, Superintendent Amy Sichel said, the focus on testing is detracting from other student interests, including extracurricular activities and elective classes. "The emphasis is on reading, writing, math at the expense of other education goals," she said.
Their unity may be new, but the problems the superintendents articulated were largely the same ones they have aired individually since the law took effect in 2002: That it unfairly requires the testing of students with learning disabilities or with limited understanding of English.
And, they stressed that the law fails to provide the funding necessary to put new, essential programs in place.
A spokeswoman for Paul Vallas, the Philadelphia district's chief executive officer, said the event had not been brought to his attention.
O'Brien said the law stands in direct conflict with federal rules requiring special accommodations for students with disabilities, including multiple kinds of assessments to make sure the student is making progress. Now, he said, "special-education students are forced to take a test on which they cannot be successful."
In a petition signed yesterday, the superintendents entreated Pennsylvania's elected federal officials to push for changes in the law to exempt special-education students from taking mandated tests, to delay testing of students with limited English, and to fully fund both No Child Left Behind and the federal special-education law.
Backed by their school boards, 138 superintendents from 14 counties endorsed the petition. Their numbers represent more than one-fourth of the 500 districts in Pennsylvania, and their schools enroll more than one-third of the 1.8 million students in the state.
All of the superintendents in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties signaled their support.
"To get 138 superintendents to agree on anything is a miracle," said Quakertown Community Superintendent Jim Scanlon, referring to the signatures on the petition.
Several of the superintendents who spoke, including O'Brien and Sichel, noted that students in their districts have little trouble meeting the No Child Left Behind requirements. But, they said, sooner or later their schools, too, would be tagged as failures because the federal goal is to have 100 percent of the students performing on grade level - proficiency on state assessments - by 2014.
Superintendents from the Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery County districts were the first to unite, Scanlon said. As word got out, superintendents from other counties wanted to join the effort.
Scanlon acknowledged that the U.S. Department of Education has recently loosened testing rules for special-education and immigrant populations, but he insisted that students in those groups still are being handled unfairly.
Yesterday, U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige told a forum of teachers in Washington that his staff "has been working with every state and virtually every school district to ease any pain in transition. Funds can be shifted to meet local needs. As we go forward with the implementation of this two-year-old law, we will continue to realign policies to ensure that the goals and objectives of No Child Left Behind are complementary to the practical implications in the classroom."
He added: "We are willing to listen and work together with the states on a number of issues."
At the Norristown event, the superintendents won the backing of James R. Weaver, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a teachers' union.
"In its current version, the law is destined for failure, will hinder quality education for children, and will cause public schools to be unfairly perceived as failures," Weaver said.
Connie Langland and Kellie Patrick
District leaders rally for changes
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