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Frustration with education law stirs talk of revolt

The 2005 rankings were especially painful in Nevada since 323 of Nevada’s 608 schools were placed on one of the law’s two failing lists — either the watch list or the needs-improvement list.

Ray Hagar

Elra Sarmiento, a parent of a second grade girl at Sierra Vista School in Reno, has heard the negative talk about the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Educators complain about an impossible grading system that has placed more than half of the public schools in Washoe County and Nevada on failing lists.

Administrators complain about the unfairness of the law and the massive amounts of paperwork it creates, draining the economic and academic energy from the school districts.

Sarmiento, however, said her daughter benefits from the law’s emphasis to ensure all students, despite race or economic standing, make adequate yearly progress.

“Any law that helps my daughter read better, I like,” Sarmiento said. “The reading programs they have had for my daughter in (full-day) kindergarten and first grade because of that have been very helpful.”

Yet there are rumblings across the nation among some educators and politicians. The biggest complaints center around the unfairness of the law’s requirement to grade special education students and English language learners on the same scale as other students.

They criticize the unfunded mandates, the time-consuming minutia work required and the lure of federal money to comply with the provisions.

A grass-roots rebellion against the federal law has spread to 47 states — including Nevada — according to a study published last week.

From the East Coast to Colorado, state lawmakers and education leaders are fighting the feds in order to make changes in the law, according to a report from NCLBgrassroots.org, a project of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Civil Society Institute of Newton Centre, Ma.

“As states and districts continue to struggle to implement NCLB, one can expect to see growing numbers of states choosing to opt out altogether, allowing districts to opt out, or turning to the courts for relief,” the report reads.

According to the report:

* In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has signed a bill that authorizes the state to sue the federal government over the No Child Left Behind law.

* In Colorado, a law was passed without the signature of Gov. Bill Owens that allows school districts to avoid NCLB sanctions by opting out of federal money attached to the law.

* Twenty-one states have considered bills critical of NCLB, 15 have considered legislation to opt out of NCLB and seven others passed resolutions critical of the law through both houses of their legislatures.

Nevada’s rumblings

In Nevada, leading Assembly Democrats in the 2005 Legislature called for a study to determine the law’s drain on the state education budget. A long-range development of that study could have led to Nevada opt out of the requirements, Democrats said.

Yet the proposal went nowhere as others feared losing $112 million annually in federal education money that comes with the compliance of the law.

“I would be hard pressed to lose my federal money at this school,” said Corbett Elementary School Principal Patricia Casarez, whose programs for many of her English language learners and poor students are funded by the federal government. “That would hurt.”

The 2005 rankings were especially painful in Nevada since 323 of Nevada’s 608 schools were placed on one of the law’s two failing lists — either the watch list or the needs-improvement list.

Fifty-three of Washoe County’s 88 schools made one of the failing lists.

All 10 schools in the Carson City School District made the lists.

Educators complain that the improvements their schools made last year were not considered because the requirements for passage were raised in 2005.

The percentages of students who must pass proficiency tests in each subgroup — such as English language learners, various minority groups and impoverished students — went up about 10 percent from 2004. By 2014, the law says 100 percent of all students in all subgroups must make adequate yearly progress.

“It’s like running in front of a steam roller. If you stop, you’ll get flattened,” said Dave Fullenwider, principal of Shaw Middle School in Spanish Springs.

Predictions for the future are catastrophic. By 2012, all of Nevada’s schools could be labeled as failing by the NCLB standards, State School Superintendent Keith Reault said.

“It’s not only in Nevada,” Reault said. “It could happen with every school in the country.”

Indeed, a Massachusetts study showed that about 75 percent of that state’s schools will fail to make the NCLB requirements by 2014.

“NCLB’s inflexible formula leads to misleading results and require sanctions that are often unnecessary or counterproductive,” the Massachusetts study reads.

At a crossroads

The rebellion has Nevada educators at a crossroads, they said.

In two years, the No Child Left Behind law is scheduled for reauthorization in Congress. While some states have chosen to rebel against the law, the smart play might be to work within the political system, Washoe Superintendent Paul Dugan said.

“I don’t want to spend a lot of time in legal battles over what is a very well-intentioned law, although it has some serious flaws,” Dugan said.

During the laws’ reauthorization, issues such as the grading of English language learners and special education students — major complaints among Nevada educators — can be changed, Casarez said.

“When the reauthorization happens, these things will have to be addressed,” said Casarez, Nevada’s representative in the National Elementary School Principal’s Association. “But if they are not addressed, then I say revolt.”

Schools with diverse student populations are at a disadvantage compared to others, Carson City Superintendent Mary Pierczynski said. Many schools on the high-achieving list don’t have enough English language learners or special education students to test under the law’s requirements, Pierczynski said.

“If you don’t have enough kids in most of the subgroups to be tested, you are going to be challenged,” Pierczynski said.

Some educators dislike being too critical because the law’s intention is noble, they said.

“It has brought our attention to groups of students that may have been overshadowed in the past,” Fullenwider said.

“If you look at the essence of the law and the reason for it, you’re darn right, a lot of kids have been ignored and a lot of educators have said, ‘it’s not my fault,’” said Michele Collins, principal at Swope Middle School in Reno.

Parents’ reaction

Some parents are also pleased with early results of the law. They point to the recently-released Nation’s Report Card from the National Center for Education Statistics that showed 9-year-olds read more and had better math skills in 2004 compared with 1971. When the Nation’s Report Card was released in July, federal officials credited No Child Left Behind.

“The reading programs have helped by child and others as well,” Sarmiento said. “With reading they can communicate, they can write. It helps so much when you are learning a second language.”

Yet some parents of special-education students question why their children need to take the tests demanded by NCLB.

Lori Koehler of Spanish Springs, a mother of two autistic elementary school children, said the test taking can be traumatic.

“He (my son) definitely does not help the district when he takes this test. He lowers scores,” Koehler said. “He is not a test taker. Tests wig him out. You have plenty of other testing data so why do they make them take these standardized tests?”

Federal officials are studying problems related to testing, especially with special-education students and English language learners, said Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturers Association and a proponent of NCLB.

Finding a fair solution is complex, Bacon said.

“It is not easy to come up with a set of rules that can work,” Bacon said.

As lawmakers and educators work toward a solution, the overall intentions of the law should not be forgotten, Bacon said.

“Obviously, this is taking longer than anyone anticipated,” Bacon said. “The set goal of 100 percent compliance by 2014, that might not be out far enough. That may have to get readjusted.

“But here’s the key to this law: This is the first time, we’re the first society that has actually committed to educate all of its children,” Bacon said. “No one else in the world has done that. This is a hell of a big mountain to climb. But it is the right mountain to climb.”

Here are some major findings of the report, “NCLB: Understanding the growing rebellion against a controversial law:

* No Child Left Behind is an unprecedented federal intrusion into an area historically reserved for the states;

* NCLB’s one-size-fits-all approach ignores the realities of good teaching and learning;

* Under NCLB, valuable class time is diverted to test preparation and away from real teaching and learning;

* NCLB is too narrow in its substantive focus because students need to master the basics such as reading and math, as well as the new basic skills — communication, creative problem solving, collaboration — in order to succeed in the 21st-century economy;

* NCLB relies too heavily on standardized testing to the exclusion of other valuable measures of mastery such as portfolio reviews and performance;

* NCLB’s punitive approach distracts and undermines educators and administrators; an approach that includes incentives and technical assistance to aid struggling schools is more likely to yield positive results over the long term;

* NCLB is underfunded, placing significant financial strain on states and districts and forcing them to divert funds away from programs that they know work to help struggling students such as smaller class size, early learning and after school programs and others.

— Ray Hagar
Reno Gazette-Journal


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