Thursday, January 20, 2005

Washington Marches On
   Every child can learn what's on the test

Middle school parents at East Middle School in Great Falls got letters yesterday that they can transfer at district expense to Paris Gibson Middle School, because East failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind law. This was because Indian and low-income students didn’t score well enough on the annual tests. The remedy provided by the law is to allow students to move.

However, the federal government through Title 1 provides extra money to East that makes tutors and smaller classes available to students who are not doing well. These funds are not available at Paris Gibson Middle School, which is not a Title 1 school. East has a population who are not doing well, and to serve these kids they get extra money. When test scores show these kids are not doing well, the solution is to move them to a different school, which does not have programs to serve them.

That parents have the right to move their kids from one public school to another is a parody of the voucher plan that was part of Bush’s original proposal to improve schools. To get the bill passed, he courted Ted Kennedy, who stood beside him when they announced the new law. To get that photo op required dropping the only real reform measure in the bill. Arranging such photo ops takes far too much energy to think through in detail what will actually happen in the thousands of schools affected by the legislation.

If what actually happens now the law is law seems a little incoherent, we might take comfort from knowing that it’s one of the smaller confusions the feds have set up under NCLB.

Expect the number of law suits over No Child Left Behind to increase as the law’s progressively more punitive sanctions against schools kick in. This will educate more people to how poorly thought out the law really is.

School districts in Illinois are suing the federal government because the test scores of their Special Education students have kept them from meeting the requirements of NCLB.  NCLB requires that all students show annual improvement according to standardized test scores or risk losing federal funding.

But the federal goverment also takes the position through its Special Ed law that children learn at different rates and need individualized rather than one-size-fits-all assessments. Special Education students have for years inhabited a realm created by the Individuals with Dsabilities Education Act (IDEA) in which students are given tests to determine intellectual, physical, emotional, and social capacities and limitations, and then a team of educators meets with the child’s parents to develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) which has realistic and attainable goals for the individual student. A goal for a Downs Syndrome student at a school where I was principal was to learn to interact with female staff without showing inappropriate physical affection (groping). One goal for another student included learning to tell time on an analog clock.

Special Education students are assessed regularly to monitor progress in meeting the goals specified in their IEP. For years, educators influenced by IDEA have been saying that all students should have IEPs--custom designed education programs tailored to their abilities and their goals.

Now, they are being told that, in effect, one size must fit all. Special Education students need to get adequate scores the standardized test or schools lose their federal funds.

The conflict between NCLB and IDEA is only one of a host of problems. Other lawsuits have been filed by schools on the Mexican border which fill up each year with new immigrant children who do not speak English. No matter how hard the teachers try, each year the students they face seem to have English test-taking skills as poor as the ones they faced the year before.

Despite the problems with No Child Left Behind, the Republicans seem satisfied to keep on saying that opponents of NCLB just don’t like “accountability.” The Democrats like to say the act is not “fully funded,” and we need to appropriate more federal dollars. Supporters of NCLB acknowledge that it’s full of design flaws, but they say this is normal in large programs just getting started. They want critics to be patient while the law is fixed. The talk on the street in Washington is that Congress is leery of opening the act up to work on it, because the fighting would be brutal and Congress has other large and important issues that need attention.

I agree with that. The feds have other things they should be paying attention to. Most likely they will pay attention to those other things, and let states and school superintendents and disgruntled parents sort through the mess as best they can.

Besides, they are off to solve new problems. On January 11, Bush announced his plan for a “$1.5 billion initiative to help every high school student graduate with the skills necessary to succeed.” States would be required to administer annual tests in reading and math to public school students in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. Under Bush, federal spending on education has gone from $35.7 billion to $57 billion. Ted Kennedy says we will not be able to educate our kids with such “tin cup spending.”

Perhaps we can take amusement if not solace from the wisdom of that reliable old leftie from fifty years back, Joseph Kinsey Howard. In a speech in Missoula in 1945, he argued that Montana would not be able to meet its educational challenges without federal dollars:

The opposition argument most frequently heard in Montana is the bugbear of federal control of our schools. It is wholly without merit, this argument. Legislation providing for federal aid specifically prohibits federal interference in state direction of the schools; such federal interference is prohibited implicitly in the Constitution of the United States; and it is prohibited explicitly in the Enabling Act by which Congress created the State of Montana, in these words: “The schools, colleges and universities provided for in this Act shall forever remain under the exclusive control of said States.”

So there.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/20 at 05:42 AM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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