Education – What Matters – What works

MAAP Board meeting and SE regional conference

As the MAAP newsletter editor, and past president I attended the Board meeting of the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs
on October 3rd. Many programs are struggling with the results of the last legislative session and resisting the direction in which the new commissioner is heading us.
Some districts were not able to continue their commitment to at-risk programs due to the need to cut budgets. Others struggle to adjust to the demands of the President’s No Child Left Behind initiative, which calls for a system of high stakes tests that holds students and schools accountable with arbitrary and punitive measures. Our Commissioner has taken this a step further and added a school report card that proposes to shame schools deemed underperforming.

This mandate and direction is a concern to teachers and directors in our programs because it measures students success or failure on the very criteria that makes students candidates for our programs. Where students have a history of poor attendance and are unlikely to graduate on time.

Terry Lydell, a MAAP board committee chair and teacher in Moundsview, has developed a proposal to help alternative programs evaluate their progress that uses methods and measurements that are more germane and positive and more likely to produce real improvement in the strategies and decision making on the part of educators. (MAAP Newsletter, p. 10-12)

The amount of misinformation about No Child Left Behind and the changes it will bring to the classroom is astounding. Here is a letter in the Northfield News, and it turns out the text actually comes from a GOP website which someone’s trying to pass off as their own (A Republican tactic that we’ll save for another time).

No child left behind Saturday, October 04, 2003 To the editor:

Because of President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” our schools are already receiving additional resources and historic levels of federal funding to ensure that students succeed, and more positive changes are on the way. Recently, the president announced that every state had put in place an accountability plan to ensure that all schools make progress.

As part of these plans, and the No Child Left Behind Act’s strong accountability provisions, school districts will be required to test students and give parents annual report cards. Schools that don’t make progress will offer their students additional services, such as free tutoring; and parents will be given new options.

Through these new reforms, we have a real chance to ensure that every child receives a quality education; and President Bush deserves enormous credit for focusing our nation’s attention on this challenge.
Phillip Rossing

There are many problems with this position. First, a lot of attention since the 1980s has been focused on Public Schools. Much of the criticism has proven to be misplaced and arose because issues were misrepresented. Most of what is in the current President’s plan is aimed at allocating money for testing that won’t get at the real tough issues the schools face, and where students don’t “perform,” through this misplaced focus threatens those schools with being shut down and replaced with privatized schools. The sad thing is that this is not real reform. Real reform would be focused on how to help truly struggling schools improve and give them the resources to make positive change.

The “writer” here seems to believe that the money in the NCLB initiative will actually get to students. Most of the money is going to turn state education departments into arms of the federal government which in turn will be taking power away from local school boards through the report card system, and not providing sufficient funding to do the job.

The following Friday, I attended the SE Regional workshop, where a variety of teachers and students presented ideas and projects that they have been learning about and implementing in their programs to do great things (make this say something). Several teachers expressed specific concerns about the future of their programs because they were labeled as failing schools for of lack of attendance. How is it reasonable to condemn a school when teachers have few resources and limited power to change the students’ or parents’ behavior.

The comments made by these colleagues reminded me of a recent letter to the Star Tribune:

Reality for a teacher

I’m confused. I am a seasoned professional teacher in a Minneapolis public school. I love my job, my students and my colleagues. I really care for and work very hard with the students and resources I get every year, and each year these both change dramatically. Last year, as a result of poor performance, our school received a supplemental program. What did this mean? Well, after teaching all day every day, we had the opportunity of working overtime to give our students more reading help in a student-teacher ratio that was much lower than we could offer during the day. The teachers who elected to participate were paid their contractual, hourly, straight-time rate. This year we made so much progress that the program was going to be discontinued. Through much effort, the program is back. One small change, however. If a licensed teacher wants to teach in this program, after a full day of teaching middle school students, the pay will be less than what a first-year teacher earns per hour. Welcome to the joys of overtime for a “professional” teacher. Now, governor, tell me again about this program to pay teachers $100,000 a year?
Lynette Cargill, Apple Valley.

In a Star Tribune article by Mary Jane Smetanka, “Teachers in tough urban-school jobs get some support” she touches on some of the problems:

Hamline’s Center for Excellence in Urban Education tries to get teachers in city schools to see that their students are capable and motivated but that those qualities may not always have been tapped. “Family and community culture profoundly affect how a child learns and responds to school,”said Barbara Washington, the center’s director.

“New teachers are often ready to teach content, but you can have all the content you want and you’re not going to get very far if you’re not relating to students and families,” she said. “We can’t change dysfunctional families, so we have to look at what we can control.”

That means combining understanding of a child’s situation with high expectations that treat children with respect. An example, Washington said, is a 10-year-old from a dysfunctional home who is effectively raising younger siblings, cooking dinner, putting them to bed and making sure they get off to school. Used to acting independently, that child may do better in school if given a leadership role, Washington said. The trick is to make the child feel like they’re in charge, but get them to do what the teacher wants.

To read the rest of the article click here

Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer (Tuesday, September 16, 2003; Page A12) says,

As the bad news about America’s public schools has poured in, with large numbers falling short of state targets demanded by the new federal education law, local officials are blaming the White House and Congress for asking the impossible. How could rational leaders demand, in just 12 years, that 100 percent of students do well enough on standardized tests to be rated proficient in reading and math?

The No Child Left Behind law is “out of touch with reality,” said Ron Wimmer, school superintendent in Olathe, Kan., and many of his counterparts across the country agree…

…Critics of the law, such as George Mason University educational psychologist Gerald W. Bracey, are less hard on its goals than on what they say is a severe lack of money. For the 2004 fiscal year, congressional Democrats want the $32 billion initially authorized for No Child Left Behind, rather than the $22.6 billion Bush has requested.

“If you want to try to get poor kids to high proficiency, you take the JFK man-on-the-moon-in-a-decade approach and fund the program adequately,” Bracey said. “To succeed, this task needs an $87 billion supplemental appropriation more than the rebuilding of Iraq needs an $87 billion supplemental appropriation.”

The issue is made more confusing because each state will have its own definition of proficiency. Before No Child Left Behind, when educators used the word “proficient,” they often meant that level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal exam given to a sampling of students to get a sense of national achievement levels. Only 31 percent of fourth-graders tested proficient or above on the latest NAEP reading test, in 2002, and only 26 percent were proficient or above on the math test given in 2000.

But under No Child Left Behind, each state sets its own standards, which are turning out to be much lower than that of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In Virginia last year, for instance, 72 percent of third-graders passed the Standards of Learning test — the state’s measure of proficiency — in English, and 80 percent passed the state math test. Still, many Virginia schools have not made adequately yearly progress under the federal law, because their low-income and special education students have not been that successful.

And here’s MICHAEL WINERIP on ‘How a Good School Can Fail on Paper’ (NY Times, ON EDUCATION, October 8, 2003)

Ever wonder how No Child Left Behind’s formulas can turn a real-life good school into a failing school on paper? Micro-Pine Level has 45 special education students — with handicaps varying from speech impediments to retardation. To make adequate progress under the federal formula for North Carolina, 74.6 percent of these 45 students — 34 — need to score as proficient in math.

Of those 45, 8 were immediately counted as failures. They were all borderline retarded children who took an alternative state assessment because they were several grades behind. While all 8 showed progress, the federal law counts them as failures because they could not pass the regular state test for their grades. That meant 34 of the remaining 37 special education students had to pass. Only 31 did. And those 3 failed special education students turned Micro-Pine Level, a school of 500, into a failure.

There is more formula magic. For a subgroup to be included in the federal assessment in North Carolina, it must have at least 40 students. So if Micro-Pine had 6 fewer special education students, 39, they would not constitute a subgroup, and the school would suddenly be a federal success. Even if all 39 failed!

In dark moments, Ms. Wellons has considered reducing her special education census to 39. “I could take off a few with mild speech impediments,” she said. She could have the borderline retarded children take the regular state test. “We could teach them testing skills,” she said. “Maybe they’d get lucky.”

But she will not. “I couldn’t,” she said. The borderline children experience enough failure, she said, and do not need to be humiliated by a test far beyond their abilities. And she will continue to offer special education to any child she feels will benefit, even those with mild speech impediments.

What makes Ms. Wellons a valued principal has little to do with test scores. As is true of many of her students, Ms. Wellons lives on a farm. She knows her children and what they are up against.

“This is one of 14 living in the same house with grandmother,” she said during a school tour. “This one had to sleep at the bus driver’s house the night before the state tests because there was a drug raid going on at home.”

If children act out, she drives them home for a talk with the parents. Ms. Wellons is known in the white, black and Mexican farmhouses and at every trailer park, from Country Store Road to Berry Acres to Beulah in the Pines.

“You have to have the heart for teaching,” she said, “and if you don’t, it doesn’t pay enough.”

Until the people in Washington figure a way to factor that into their formulas, educators like Ms. Wellons believe, No Child Left Behind is likely to remain, for many, a baffling law full of statistical hocus-pocus. (Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company)

The goal of No Child Left Behind is one every teacher, every school, every parent, every state should want. The reality is we need to make sure the methods we use really have a chance of meeting this goal. Republicans are often saying these goals can be accomplished with out giving more money to the schools and then promote vouchers for privates schools. If money can’t make a difference it makes you wonder what the ‘super teacher’ plan is all about. Not enough credit is given to the hard working teachers who give their 120% every day on the job because they love what they do. But there’s is no getting around the fact that these problems need resources if we are to have any hope of solving them.

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