States Scramble to Implement New Education Law

 

Scores of schools across the country aren't making the grade when it comes to complying with the new No Child Left Behind education law.

Some states are reworking their policies to make it easier for students to pass muster while some districts are finding excuses not to take students from schools with poor marks.

And many parents who thought they would be able to move their children out of failing schools into better ones will have to sit tight, at least for a while.

States and schools -- are scrambling to meet a tangle of new federal requirements of a law that vastly expanded the federal government's role in public schools.

The new law is "the most significant federal education policy initiative in a generation," says the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based organization made up of state officials from various levels of the education system. But the commission says that implementing the changes will be "a tall order" because many states don't have the money or systems in place to meet all the new federal requirements.

Among other things, schools must show each year that their students make "adequate yearly progress" with the ultimate goal of every student being "proficient" in math and English by 2012-13. States have some flexibility in how they define those terms, but must stay within the parameters of the federal law.

And that's part of the problem. Final regulations from the Department of Education that more clearly lay out what states can -- and can't do -- under No Child Left Behind have yet to be published. States are working with "guidance" and interim rules from the feds.

"It changes everything we are doing here," says Holly Lane, communication coordinator for Vermont's Department of Education. "It's a whole different ballgame." Vermont Gov. Howard Dean got so frustrated that he considered giving back the federal money to avoid having to deal with all the new federal requirements.

For starters, states are working hard to winnow down the number of schools that aren't up to snuff. Relying on information from the states, the U.S. Department of Education estimated earlier this summer that 8,600 schools are "in need of improvement," making sure not to characterize the schools as "failing."

But that's exactly how most describe these schools, which total nearly 10 percent of the nation's approximately 91,000 schools, notes Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, an advocacy organization in Cambridge, Mass., that aims to end what it sees as the abuses and flaws of standardized testing.

Michigan had the highest number of schools on the Department of Education list with 1,513 - even though Michigan's students score above average on national assessment tests and the state's standards are considered rigorous. Arkansas, on the other hand, had no schools on the list even though it traditionally scores near the bottom of national assessment tests. The lesson there, at least to some, is that a lower standard can help some schools avoid getting the "failing" label.

Several states, including Connecticut, California, Colorado, Louisiana and Michigan, are considering changing the way they define "proficient" to boost their rankings. Essentially, students who the state would have previously said met "basic" reading and math standards would now be considered "proficient."

Education Secretary Rod Paige has made it clear he's not keen on the idea. In an Oct. 23 letter to state school chiefs, Paige criticized states for "discussing how they can ratchet down their standards in order to remove schools from their lists of low performers." Paige added, "it is nothing less than shameful that some defenders of the status quo are trying to hide the performance of underachieving schools in order to shield parents from reality."

Ohio is still reworking its tally of the schools that need help. The state earlier this summer removed 203 schools from its preliminary list of low-performing schools -- just 10 days after it published the listing. The state cited a "misapplication of a computer calculation" as the reason for the error and now figures less than 200 schools need to be improved.

New school choice requirements also are tripping up states. Under the new law, schools that get federal funds that fail to make progress for two years must allow students to transfer to other schools that are performing better. The districts also must provide the students with the transportation to get to their new schools

Critics charge that districts are trying to skirt this provision by arguing that the better schools just don't have the space. Chicago, for example, said it had only 2,800 spots for up to 125,000 students eligible to transfer. Chicago, critics note, is relying on a new Illinois law that defines a school as overcrowded when it reaches 80 percent capacity. "A lot of districts are using bogus excuses," says Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst at the Center for Education Reform, a D.C. group that supports vouchers and charter schools.

Baltimore, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York and Philadelphia are among other large districts that cite overcrowding as reasons for severely limiting the number of eligible students who can transfer from poorly performing schools.

And in many places, letters notifying parents that their children were eligible to go to better schools another new requirement -- didn't arrive until months after the children were already in school. Many parents are reluctant to pull their children out of a school after their kids have already made friends and started classes.

"So many districts are violating the letter of the law and many more are violating the spirit, especially when it comes to the school choice provisions," McCluskey says.

"The law is a bad mistake in many areas," Neill of FairTest, says. "Plenty of observers think the law will implode."

 
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