Will 'No Child' law pass its next big exam?

  • Article by: PATRICE RELERFORD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 29, 2008 - 11:25 PM

The No Child Left Behind law, with its high-stakes testing, is up for renewal, and legislators are hearing from unhappy educators.

When Chaska elementary school teachers were asked about the federal No Child Left Behind law, almost everyone said the same thing: change it or drop it.

And this comes from a district that always meets its benchmarks for the federally mandated legislation.

Disapproval is rising nationally as the hallmark education legislation nears its deadline for reauthorization.

Since January, leaders from metro-area school districts have trekked to Washington or St. Paul to share their discontent with elected leaders or spoken with them as they've made the rounds in their home districts.

No Child Left Behind was signed by President Bush in 2002 in a sweeping effort to force schools to test students and pay closer attention to achievement among minority, low-income and special education students, and students for whom English is a second language.

"People need to recognize that it was a bipartisan effort and it wouldn't have passed without Democratic support," said Joe Nathan, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for School Change. "At the time it was adopted, the Democrats controlled the Senate."

But support has decreased as schools have struggled to meet performance goals and federal funding for the program has declined. The recent survey of Chaska teachers provides some insight into metro-area educators' frustrations.

"I think one of the most interesting things about this is that [Chaska] is a school district that has met NCLB standards," said Paru Shah, a political science professor at Macalester College. "Because there's been this focus on schools that are doing the worst, we haven't heard from teachers like these."

Shah conducted the survey last fall in cooperation with Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank. She questioned 87 teachers in the rapidly growing Carver County school district. It replicated a survey conducted by Harvard University in 2004 at public schools in Virginia and California.

If not reauthorized this year, the law will remain in place as is, a fate even supporters wants to avoid. For now, reauthorization of No Child Left Behind has stalled in Congress, and teachers around the country, including in Minnesota, are seeking a bigger role in defining a system that some educators say has turned them into "indentured servants."

But State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, an appointee of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, hasn't wavered in her belief that the law includes "laudable goals," such as 100 percent proficiency in science and math for all students by 2014.

Meanwhile, administrators from the Lakeville, Inver Grove Heights, Shakopee and Burnsville school districts met recently with Second District Rep. John Kline -- a Republican with a strong record of support for President Bush on NCLB -- to discuss their concerns about the law.

Kline sits on the House Education and Labor Committee and has argued for greater flexibility in NCLB, more local control and more federal funding for special education.

Joshua Straka, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, of the Fourth District, said she met with leaders from the St. Paul and White Bear Lake school districts in January during a visit by Minnesota School Board Association members to Washington. They discussed many of the same issues, he said.

Chaska Superintendent David Jennings said he wasn't surprised teachers think the federal law is lacking. He does, too.

In fact, Jennings worries all schools will eventually be labeled "as failing" because of the way the law raises Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) expectations every year with a goal of proficiency for all students in reading and math by 2014.

But he is skeptical about potential relief from the state or federal governments.

"In the last five years or so, I have shared this viewpoint with anyone who will listen," Jennings said. "A handful [of legislators] agree that it should be changed completely, but throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do."

When questioned, more than 65 percent of the Chaska teachers surveyed said labeling and punishing schools that haven't met AYP goals doesn't lead to improvement.

Instead, teachers said that it puts "unfair pressure" on them and their students; that it "takes the joy out of teaching and learning;" that it deemphasizes untested subjects such as music or physical education; and that it sets unrealistic goals for special education students and those who are learning English as their second language.

Some educators worry No Child Left Behind could drive highly qualified teachers from the field.

"All along, there was a sense that we were leaving some kids behind that we shouldn't," Kline said. But, he added, "I'm worried that No Child Left Behind didn't offer nearly enough flexibility to local schools."

To that end, Kline and Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., are sponsoring the "A-Plus Act." If No Child Left Behind is reauthorized and Kline's bill passes, together they would give each state the option to withdraw from federal education programs yet keep federal funding.

In essence, the law would allow states to work with the U.S. Department of Education to develop their own accountability standards. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., have introduced the companion bill in the Senate.

Kline said reauthorization talks broke down recently, but may be revived this spring.

However, Nathan has kept a close eye on Washington and said he doubts anything significant will happen with the law soon. "I think there aren't going to be any major changes to this [law] until the next president gets in."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395

  • Comments from Chaska teachers during the survey:

    "Please use this to end the madness!!! It is undermining public education."

    "The testing is making me consider going back to business as a career. It is not fun anymore."

    "In all of my years of teaching, I have never met an educator who wanted to leave a child behind. We don't need mandates to tell us that."

    "If we are required to meet certain standards as dictated by NCLB, then NCLB must be funded appropriately in all areas: ELL, Special Education, Title I, smaller class sizes and so on."

    Source: No Child Left Behind: The Teachers' Voice, A survey of Teacher Attitudes Toward NCLB; Macalester College and Minnesota 2020.
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