Minnesota freed from 'No Child Left Behind' sanctions

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2012 - 9:43 PM

Schools still will have to show academic growth in individual students, a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates and a high graduation rate.

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Kindergartners Jacky Vang, left, and Precious Garwoloquoi read books Thursday at Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Almost half of Minnesota's schools will shed the "failing" label under a new plan that state leaders say will cut the achievement gap while giving struggling schools the flexibility they need.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education approved waiver requests from Minnesota and nine other states, freeing their schools from the "No Child Left Behind" mandate that requires 100 percent proficiency in math and reading -- a target many educators believe is impossible.

Last year, 1,056 out of 2,255 Minnesota schools were considered failing under the federal law. Of those, 34 were required to restructure, the most serious consequence of the law. More than half of those -- 19 -- are in the Minneapolis district. Six are in the St. Paul district.

"Under 'No Child Left Behind,' teachers have been forced to teach to tests, which do not accurately measure either individual student or school progress," said Gov. Mark Dayton, a former teacher. "Students spend too many hours preparing for, practicing and taking the tests."

Under Minnesota's new plan, schools still will be judged on the proficiency of their students in math and reading, but they also will have to show academic growth in individual students, a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates and a strong high school graduation rate. The Minnesota Department of Education estimates that the state's achievement gap will be cut in half within six years as a result.

In the past, schools that repeatedly missed the mark under No Child Left Behind faced penalties, including forced staffing changes and being required to provide students with free after-school tutoring and busing to better schools.

'Priority schools'

Moving forward, the lowest-performing schools -- called "Priority Schools" -- must submit plans that show they can drastically alter the course, but it will be up them to decide how to do it.

Northport Elementary in the Robbinsdale District was scheduled to begin preliminary talks about restructuring next year as a consequence of being branded a failing school under current federal law.

With the waiver in place, it appears restructuring won't be necessary. Nonetheless, the school will continue to look for ways to improve, said Principal Patrick Smith.

"What the waiver does for us is it allows us to ask the question, 'Are we growing as a school?'" Smith said. "As an educator, to me, that's important."

Also important, school administrators say, is removing the stigma attached to a failing school.

"I've heard several people at our elementary school say that this [the waiver] allows them to celebrate their accomplishments, and not be seen a failure," said Jill Pearson, turnaround officer for Brooklyn Center schools. "That helps the psyche."

Losing ground?

Not everyone in Minnesota, however, supports the waiver.

The Minnesota Business Partnership argues that the waiver puts too much emphasis on growth, rather than meeting academic standards.

"What I like to compare it to is if they started giving out driver's licenses to people who fail the test but did a little better than they did the year before," said executive director Charlie Weaver.

By lowering academic standards, he said, Minnesota's workforce ultimately pays the price.

"Minnesota kids will be unable to compete against kids around the globe for the chance to work for some of our biggest and best companies," said Weaver.

Republicans in both the U.S. and state capitols have denounced the waiver process, arguing that the process allows the Department of Education and federal government to bypass the will of state legislatures and Congress.

In Minnesota, Reps. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton -- the chairs of the Minnesota House education committees -- sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last month asking the federal government to deny Minnesota's waiver application.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education Committee, has, from the start, criticized the waiver process and considers the waivers a tool for Duncan and the federal Department of Education to skirt Congress and avoid the debate necessary to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He has labeled the waivers an "overreach" into K-12 education that restricts the rights of local and state educators in exchange for relief from the strict demands of No Child Left Behind.

Of the 11 states that applied for a waiver, only New Mexico was denied. In addition to Minnesota, approvals were given to Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Minnesota's waiver is good through the 2013-2014 school year. At that time, the state can choose to reapply.

Staff writer Corey Mitchell contributed to this report. Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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  • WHAT THE 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND' WAIVER MEANS

    As a result of the waiver approval, the following No Child Left Behind mandates no longer apply to Minnesota schools: 2014 goal of 100 percent proficiency Sanctions for individual schools and districts resulting from not making yearly progress Identification of individual schools and districts that need improvement or corrective action

    In return, Minnesota pledges to set up a new accountability system to measure school performance. Schools will be judged on:

    Proficiency: Schools earn points by meeting yearly progress goals.

    Growth: Students are measured by their performance on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests relative to their performance the previous year. Schools get a growth score based on the average growth of all students in the school.

    Achievement Gap Reduction: Schools are judged on how black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, English learners, students living in poverty and special education students compare to statewide average growth of higher performing subgroups. Schools earn points based on their ability to narrow the gap.

    Graduation rate: Schools earn points based on their statewide percentile ranking for four-year, on-time graduation rates.

    Using the point system established, schools will fall into three categories:

    Reward Schools: These schools represent the highest-performing schools on the four measurements. They will receive public recognition.

    Focus Schools: Using just the proficiency and achievement-gap reduction measurements from the new system, schools will receive what is known as a focus rating. The 10 percent of schools with the lowest focus rating receive this designation and will be required to come up with plans to boost achievement.

    Priority Schools: These are the 5 percent of schools that are most persistently low-performing. They are required to submit plans that drastically change how each school operates.

    UNDER THE NEW PLAN

    The state will set new targets for annual yearly progress. Schools begin earning points under the new accountability system immediately. The state Department of Education expects to begin identifying priority schools this year.

    Source: Minnesota Department of Education

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