Unpopular 'No Child’ leaving plenty of students behind

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2011 - 8:22 PM

Minority, poor kids have not made the desired gains.

Nearly a decade after Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping mandate to ramp up standards and accountability in the nation's public schools, more than a third of black, Latino and Native American students in Minneapolis public schools don't graduate, records show.

On state test scores, the district hasn't budged the needle on No Child Left Behind's central goals, which target the achievement gap that separates white and nonwhite students and disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers.

In fact, the chasm on state test scores has widened as Minneapolis' white students continue to outperform their peers around the state. The district's non-white students have made gains, too, but not enough to keep up.

Facing mounting sanctions under the federal law, Minneapolis and other districts across Minnesota support Gov. Mark Dayton's request, made earlier this month, for a waiver that would allow hundreds of schools to avoid penalties for not meeting the law's ever-higher targets.

It's part of a national revolt against a law that forced schools to focus on measurable results, yet ultimately came to be viewed as punishing educators for not doing the impossible.

"No Child Left Behind was intended to be the cure for the achievement gap," said Kent Pekel, director of the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium. "It has turned out to be the diagnosis."

The diagnosis in Minneapolis has school Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson backing off a goal she set four years ago, as the district's chief academic officer: to slash the achievement gap between white students and those of color by 75 percent by 2012.

"We haven't been as successful as we'd like to be," Johnson said. "We had to be more realistic ... especially about what we can do in Minneapolis."

With 84 districts in Minnesota facing sanctions, Minneapolis is hardly alone. Yet the high numbers of poor and immigrant students pose a particularly daunting challenge for meeting No Child Left Behind's goal of every student being proficient in math and reading by 2014, officials say.

Beyond the academic measures, No Child Left Behind has made its presence known in the district. At least 30 of the 55 schools face the threat of mandatory restructuring, including replacing staff and principals, because they haven't met federal standards for three consecutive years.

Four schools -- Bethune Elementary, Hmong Academy, Wellstone International High for English language learners and Broadway High for pregnant and parenting teenage mothers -- have already had their principals replaced.

Two other schools, Lucy Laney K-8 and Edison High, have had half of their teachers reassigned.

An increasing number of Minneapolis students opting for suburban and charter schools, and declining birth rates in the city, have whittled away more than a quarter of the district's enrollment. Minneapolis public schools, the state's largest school district when No Child Left Behind was passed, has now slipped to third in enrollment.

Destined for failure?

Johnson, in her time as principal at Hall Elementary School in north Minneapolis during No Child Left Behind's early days, saw success in boosting the test scores by using funds to reduce class sizes.

The district has all but abandoned that strategy, ignoring the goals of a 2009 referendum to lower class sizes, said Robert Panning-Miller, a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers executive board member and former president.

As a union leader and teacher, Panning-Miller witnessed time and resources sucked from his high school social studies classroom, along with the science and fine arts courses of his colleagues, as the district doled out more than $18 million to outside agencies for tutoring services and devoting more money to add math and literacy coaches in schools an effort to boost test scores.

The strategy has yet to produce results on test scores, especially in reading for Asian and Latino students, where the achievement gaps on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II exam more than doubled between 2003 and 2010.

"It was destined for failure," Panning-Miller said about No Child Left Behind. "My hope had always been that it wouldn't take people a decade to figure it out."

But bright spots exist. Almost all groups of students in Minneapolis, regardless of income or race, are earning diplomas at higher rates and taking more advanced classes while in high school, district data shows.

The largest gains have come in the graduation rate for Latino students, which has more than doubled since 2003.

Yet the gaps persist.

"We just can't celebrate our white students knocking the socks off these tests when our students of color aren't making the same gains," said Dave Heistad, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for the Minneapolis schools.

During her tenure as chief academic officer and superintendent, Johnson has yet to replicate the success she had at Hall.

"We're a good place to educate a diverse student population, but we're not seeing it in test scores," Johnson said.

"It's hard work and it takes time."

But some point the finger at the district for the achievement gap.

"There's been an acceptance that some kids are going to do well and some kids aren't," said Elaine Salinas, executive director of MIGIZI Communications, a nonprofit organization focused on the education of American Indian children.

Based on a federal formula, Minneapolis lists a district-wide high school graduation rate that has risen above 70 percent. Starting next year, the state Department of Education will require all districts to publish four- or five-year graduation rates. Minneapolis's four-year graduation rate is 49 percent.

Minneapolis' graduation rates and test scores for impoverished and minority students border on "criminal," said Betty Webb, a former Minneapolis principal and associate superintendent.

"I don't see Minneapolis public schools holding people's feet to the fire," Webb said.

The high dropout rates in urban districts assigns many students to "life on the margins," said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust.

Under No Child Left Behind, "progress has not come nearly fast enough or far enough," Hall said.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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