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No Child Left Behind to change

When the Obama administration said that it would seek changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, the details were scarce, but local educators were optimistic.

“It’s certainly encouraging,” said Terry Foriska, superintendent of Hempfield Area School District. No Child Left Behind “did a great job of exposing achievement gaps and demanding accountability,”Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “But it had many other shortcomings and we need to fix it right away so that we can get on with the important work of teaching and learning. The president knows that we have to educate our way to a better economy.”

The centerpiece of the controversial 2002 law was annual standardized testing, which determined whether schools were making academic progress. While No Child Left Behind was praised for increasing accountability and improving student performance, the law has been criticized for creating a rigid but underfunded system with unrealistic goals.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said that while there is room for improvement, the law changed the culture of public education for the better. “I think it’s accomplished a lot,” he said. “It has actually led to improved performance, and it has focused states and districts on achievement. I don’t think there’s a question in my mind that a lot of positive things have come out of No Child Left Behind.”

“It did some good,” said Norman Catalano, curriculum coordinator for the Woodland Hills School District in Allegheny County. “But the unfunded mandates were a problem.”

Under the law, all students, even those with learning disabilities, were supposed to reach minimum proficiency on statewide math and reading tests by 2014, a goal that very few schools nationwide are on track to meet. Administration officials have suggested that the deadline might be abandoned or changed, an idea that won praise locally.

“It’s welcome news to hear that they’re talking about eliminating the 2014 goal,” Foriska said. “To have thrown that out there as an arbitrary year when everybody had to be proficient was daunting.”

Foriska noted that Hempfield Area High School did not make adequate progress last year only because the subset of students with learning disabilities did not meet performance targets. “It was obviously a frustration for us,” he said. “It’s difficult to accept that students who have difficulty learning are going to be proficient. We had students who would be crying during the test. The material was difficult, and it was very frustrating for them.”

While he acknowledged that universal proficiency was not going to be achieved by 2014, Hanushek cautioned against abandoning the goal entirely.

“I think 2014 has been useful in putting the focus on all students achieving,” he said. “I would hate to see them back away from strong goals.”

Evaluation Questions

Among educators, one of the least popular aspects of No Child Left Behind was that it required schools that did not meet proficiency goals for two years to be labeled “in need of improvement,” but it did not provide sufficient funding to turn them around. “When you’re cited as a school that’s in need of improvement, it’s humiliating for the children,” said George Patterson, superintendent of the New Kensington-Arnold School District.

New Kensington’s Valley High School did not make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind last year. However, the district was named one of the 50 most-improved in Pennsylvania. Batterson said he wished the gains had been considered under No Child Left Behind. Duncan said the administration would seek to create a more nuanced system to judge student performance, taking into account whether students improved over their own previous test scores, rather than whether they met benchmarks. “Everything needs to take into account student growth,” said David Goodin, superintendent of the Connellsville Area School District. “You don’t just take a child and say, ‘Here’s your test. If you don’t pass it, you fail.’ A student with an IQ of 80 might have made wonderful progress, but not compared with a student with a 120 IQ. And the PSSA does not differentiate.”

“I would definitely go to a growth standard,” Hanushek said. “Without a doubt, that’s one of the biggest problems we have now.” Details of the president’s budget, which includes a 7.5 percent increase in discretionary spending for the Department of Education, suggest that the administration will seek to remake No Child Left Behind in the image of Race to the Top, a stimulus program that will distribute more than $4 billion to states based on competitive applications

While traditionally most education money has been doled out based on a formula that considered population and poverty, the Obama administration will seek to make more of the $50 billion federal education budget subject to competition.

This idea received mixed reviews

“Before I can get the money to help the children, they’re creating another hurdle,” said Terry Struble, superintendent of the Mt. Pleasant Area School District.

“You put the emphasis on who has the best grant writer, rather than who has the most need,” said Tim Allwein, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The Pittsburgh Public Schools, like other large districts, have a full-time, grant writing staff, likely putting the district in a better position to receive competitive funding than small or medium-size districts.

“We are definitely up for those challenges,” said district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. “We have a professional staff that is experienced.” School officials also were worried that changes to No Child Left Behind would require school districts to enact reforms without considering binding contracts with local teachers’ unions.

“I would like to see whatever the feds come up with provide the district with more power to negotiate with the (teachers’) association,” Goodin said.

“You can’t just say, ‘Now we’re going to do it this way,’ without taking into account the history of collective bargaining,” said Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union is among the groups that will be lobbying Congress as it works on a bill to replace No Child Left Behind, a process that promises to be arduous.

“We’re hoping that, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to move to a new government system, there will be some discussion among the stakeholders,” said Allwein, of the school boards association. “We were just in Washington talking to our senators and Congresspeople.”

Allwein said Pennsylvania’s senators, Bob Casey and Arlen Specter, both Democrats, seemed receptive to his group’s concerns. “Both of them realize where we’re at right now,” he said. “It isn’t the same as eight years ago.”

By Amy Crawford Sunday, February 21, 2010