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Ambitious Plan, Mixed Opinions

Ohanian Comment: This is worth reading for Rod Paige's advice to educators: Let's be cheerful and stay the course.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush stressed a simple idea while campaigning here nearly four years ago - that every child should read by third grade.

Bush spoke of his education plan while sitting in the gym at Wild Horse Elementary School under a banner declaring "No Child Left Behind." A year and a half later that plan became law.

Two years later, No Child Left Behind, the law stressing testing, accountability and the ability of all students to meet standards, has been implemented nationwide.
And more than half of Missouri schools and nearly half in Illinois fell short last year of the yearly progress goals for reading and math.

In the years since Bush's campaign promise, the law has increasingly become the center of a national educational debate. Some states and districts argue that the law relies too much on high-stakes testing and is quick to label schools as failing. Its overall goal, that all students can meet state standards, is simply unrealistic, critics say. The law's defenders say that the law merely requires that schools finally be truly accountable and that school leaders don't want to face achievement gaps.

A few school districts have decided they would rather give up federal money than put up with the law's penalties. Some 20 state legislatures have responded to the federal law with resolutions and bills protesting what many
view as an intrusion on states' rights. Neither Missouri nor Illinois has introduced such measures. Wild Horse Principal Karen Hargadine heard Bush's comments in the gym that late-summer day in 2000.

"We knew it would be a large issue, but no one had any idea it would become this big," Hargadine said of the federal education law.

Just last week Bush's education secretary, Rod Paige, visited St. Louis to tout the benefits of No Child Left Behind. All students are tested and must make "adequate yearly rogress," including minority, low-income and special education students. The end goal is that by 2014, all students will meet state standards.

"Every state has an accountability system in place to hold students to high standards," Paige said at a national conference held here for education leaders. "Just because we hear bickering around the edges with high decibel levels, we should not lose sight that we are making improvement. Let's be cheerful and stay the course."

Hargadine's school met the requirements. She served on a national commission of educators who made suggestions for the No Child Left Behind legislation. Two years after the law took effect she's a believer.

"If you manage your time wisely and look at the data and concentrate on the needs of students, you can make a difference," she said.

Still, many school administrators say the requirements of No Child Left Behind are unworkable, a burden, says Greg Jung, president of the Missouri National Education Association.

Jung said children learn at different rates.

"It makes no sense to say every child will be proficient at some point in the future," Jung said. "And for schools long considered the very best in the state not to make adequate yearly progress - there has to be something wrong with the law, he said.

Jung added, "We believe strongly in the goal of closing the achievement gap. But using this as a hammer is not going to do that."

When Bush visited Wild Horse in the Rockwood School District in 2000, then-Rockwood Superintendent John Oldani said he liked Bush's focus on disadvantaged students.

Oldani, now executive director of the Cooperating School Districts, said last week that he still feels that way. But Oldani has concerns about sanctions schools and districts face if they fail to make adequate yearly progress over several years.

After three years of not meeting requirements, schools must offer public school choice for all students, and those from low income families are eligible - at a cost to the district - for services such as tutoring or remedial classes. Four years of noncompliance could include replacing staff and adding a new curriculum; and after five years all or most of the staff could be replaced. The school also could be turned over to a private company or the state.

"I don't know how we will solve problems, if we make it a punitive issue," Oldani said. "I would rather look at how we can make this work."

Some researchers have said states might have to raise their education budgets by as much as 30 percent to comply with the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

States provide about half of the cost of educating children. The federal government contributes about 7 percent. Local tax revenue pays for the rest.

Paige said that under Bush education funding has increased by 36 percent and that the government has provided sufficient money to pay for the requirements of the legislation. Estimating how much the federal law will cost is complicated. States and schools would have spent money anyway to work to
mprove schools.

Missouri Education Commissioner D. Kent King said there appears to be enough money to develop the tests required for students in grades three through eight.

But King has concerns about whether there will be sufficient money to allow under-performing schools to make significant changes down the road.

When education leaders first discussed No Child Left Behind, King thought there would be sufficient flexibility for states. Now he says there is less flexibility than he had hoped for.

"My biggest frustration is that No Child Left Behind has shifted the focus from real school improvement to counting numbers and seeing if schools are on the 'needs improvement' list," King said.

Brent Clark, superintendent of Belleville High Schools, said when he first heard Bush talk about school accountability, placing highly qualified teachers in the classrooms and providing safer schools, he was in favor of reform.

"I was sold," Clark said. "It was positive, and they said it was going to be fully funded. But then the U.S. Department of Education started to come out with the rules and the way they were going to implement this thing."

While Clark's district is making adequate yearly progress, he said he disagrees with the notion that schools should be punished if all of their students don't make the same kinds of progress.

"The spirit of the law targets public schools," Clark said. "It's a one-size-fits-all approach."

Hargadine, principal at Wild Horse Elementary, said her school has enjoyed success under No Child Left Behind because of high goals and expectations for students for reading. About 13 percent of the school's 575 students are
African-American, 7 percent Asian and 2 percent Hispanic. The low income student body -measured by those who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches - is 15 percent.

"We have done everything we can to get students to meet those goals, she said. "We have looked for areas where students are weak and found ways to shore them up."

"Being a global society, our responsibility is to make a difference for every child who walks through our doors," she said. "When we put our heads together, it can be done."

Key elements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

Requires annual testing of students against state standards in reading and math and in science three times during a student's school career. Each state uses its own tests and its own standards of learning.

Individual states also devise their own definition and timeline for determining whether a school, district and state is making "adequate yearly progress" toward a goal of 100 percent of students meeting state standards by 2013-2014.

A school or district's low-income, limited English-speaking students, minority and special education students must also make adequate yearly progress.

If a school or district fails to make adequate yearly progress, the district must offer parents the option to transfer to another higher-performing school within the district. If it continues to fail to make progress, the district must then offer tutoring services. If a school continues to fail, it can be closed and reopened under new administration.

— Carolyn Bower
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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