The state is pursuing waiver from No Child Left Behind, but lagging schools must still comply with what some call unfair sanctions.
Licensed resource teacher Olivia Stewart read a story, "Ron's Big Mission," to second grade students at Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center. Earle Brown failed to meet the No Child Left Behind goal and is preparing for restructuring.
With a list in hand that shows nearly half of Minnesota's schools falling short of No Child Left Behind goals, educators at schools facing penalties under the law are reluctantly gearing up to comply.
Many hope this will be the last time.
The state Education Department announced Friday that 1,056 out of 2,255 schools are not making "adequate yearly progress" under the law, a slight increase from last year's 1,048.
The report comes as Minnesota plans its escape from key provisions of the increasingly controversial federal law, including a 2014 deadline by which all students are supposed to be proficient in reading and math.
"We really wish we were not in the position of having to label our schools this year," said state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
Within a few months, state officials hope they will have a federal waiver. But for now, they said they must release the annual list and impose consequences that go with it.
The list released Friday includes 34 Minnesota schools that are in the law's most serious restructuring phrase, up from 26 last year.
Another 45 schools statewide must prepare to restructure, compared with 19 last year. And 289 schools face less serious consequences.
"It's surprising that there aren't more schools in trouble, based on how easy it is to get that label," said Dave Heistad, testing director for the Minneapolis schools. "The system isn't fair."
In the Minneapolis schools, no middle or high school made adequate progress. Only two of 25 did in St. Paul. Students in both districts made gains on state reading tests and made progress in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students this year, but not enough to catch up with the rising federal standards.
While acknowledging the spotlight the law has shined on students who fall through the cracks, Cassellius and others nationwide argue that the law unfairly brands schools as failing even if they're improving.
But some are disappointed that the state is seeking a waiver, including the Minnesota Business Partnership, a nonprofit group composed of chief executives of the state's largest companies.
"No Child Left Behind has had some very positive results for the kids it's intended to benefit," said Jim Bartholomew, the group's education policy director. The law isn't perfect, but "it hasn't been very clearly articulated what we're going to do in its place."
To get waivers, Minnesota and others states must agree to school reforms backed by the Obama administration.
More schools face penalties
No Child Left Behind puts an emphasis on raising the test scores of students who have often struggled in school, including low-income kids, many minority groups and students who are learning English or in special education. If a school doesn't make enough progress with even one of those student subgroups, the whole building can be branded as falling short.
For schools that receive federal Title I funding for low-income students, missing the law's targets can lead to increasingly stiff penalties. Schools in the early stages of consequences must offer to bus students elsewhere and provide extra tutoring. If they keep falling short, they risk having to restructure, which can mean replacing the principal and most teachers.
The number of underperforming schools could have been much bigger this year because of a new math test on which many students did poorly. But the state recalibrated the performance targets so that more schools weren't labeled as underperforming.
The timing of Friday's news wasn't ideal, Cassellius said: State officials delayed releasing the list in the hope that they would have a waiver by the end of September. Without one, some schools have to comply with sanctions such as offering free busing to students who want to attend different schools -- after classes have already begun.
Should schools defy law?
Since a waiver could be just months away, one state legislator encouraged administrators at schools facing a complete overhaul to make the changes they believe in, even if that means flouting the law. They should "use some common sense and not be so afraid of the federal government," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, the DFL lead on the House Education Finance Committee.
But Cassellius pointed out that Minnesota could be denied a waiver. "Plain and simple, we must follow the law," she said.
The Osseo district will follow the law, said Don Pascoe, the district's assessment director. "We're not very excited about it, but we'll do it," he said.
Earle Brown Elementary, in the Brooklyn Center district, is on the list of schools that must prepare to restructure. It fell short this year because it didn't show enough progress with special education students. Superintendent Keith Lester said the school will probably do the "bare minimum" to comply with the law, but he doesn't believe a complete overhaul is in the best interest of students.
"We'll do what we have to do, but we will spend more of our time doing things that are going to have a direct, positive impact on our kids," he said.
For example, the school is revamping how it teaches kids to read with a $150,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation, and teachers are working to better align special education and mainstream classwork.
Support for law slipping
Outrage over No Child Left Behind grew quickly in urban districts after it was signed in 2002. Anger spread as standards ramped up and more middle- and upper-middle-class districts began feeling the effects, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul and executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership.
"Whether you're an inner-city school or in Edina, the formula...isn't right. But there should be an expectation that all districts do well," he said.
Last week, the Obama administration laid out guidelines for reforms states must promise to make in exchange for waivers. Minnesota plans to be among the first applicants.
Mariani is hopeful that a waiver won't alter the spirit of No Child Left Behind, which helped highlight gaps in achievement, though he said it has done little to narrow them.
"It's been a big effort that's produced small results," Mariani said, "but I don't think it's fair to say No Child Left Behind has been a failure."