Educators say No Child leaves schools behind

The No Child Left Behind Act passed eight years ago this month has forced improvements, but some local educators say facets of the law could be tweaked.

"No Child Left Behind should focus on an individualized student growth model or value-added model versus a single score, with the goal to target a performance standard to reach for each student," Richmond County schools Superintendent Dana Bedden wrote in a recent e-mail.

Too often, some say, the legislation has painted a broad view of a system based on meeting overall standardized test scores and Adequate Yearly Progress, a goal that can be accomplished systemwide only if 100 percent of targets are met.

"A lot of people wonder why our system hasn't been labeled as making AYP," Dr. Bedden recently told a group of area legislators. But he said the local school system has met 90 percent or better of its performance targets. "So we're working in the right direction."

National push for change

The law -- which was crafted by the Bush administration and enacted on Jan. 8, 2002 -- calls for universal proficiency standards to be met by 2014. It is once again in the spotlight as President Obama's administration considers changes.

Toward the end of last year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was wrapping up a Listening and Learning Tour throughout the country to get public input about what the future of No Child Left Behind should be. In September he spoke about reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to include changes to No Child Left Behind.

A time frame for a reauthorization hasn't been released, and messages left for Mr. Duncan's office weren't immediately returned. But in a speech a few months ago, he said the law has significant flaws because it "puts too much emphasis on standardized tests, unfairly labels many schools as failures, and doesn't account for students' academic growth in its accountability system," according to the Department of Education's Web site.

The Obama administration also has started its own school reform program, called Race to the Top, through which school systems compete for funding with a plan to improve low-performing schools. Richmond County school board members recently agreed to apply for Race to the Top funding, knowing Georgia has the potential to receive $200 million to $400 million.

Underfunded mandates

As for No Child Left Behind, educators often complain that it has mandates that aren't properly funded.

"No Child Left Behind has never been fully funded, thus requiring school districts to spend more local money or redirect funds," Dr. Bedden said.

One such cost has been in providing transportation to those who opt for school choice should their school qualify. The choice option allows students at schools deemed in need of improvement to go to another school, causing more costly and lengthier student trips.

About three years ago, Columbia County had one Title 1 school -- Harlem Middle -- that offered school choice, said Columbia County's Title 1 director, Lisa Soloff. The system offered to pay mileage to parents to transport their child to another school. Dr. Soloff said the system got lucky in that only a few parents chose to do so.

She said money for such transportation is provided through Title 1 funding, and it cuts down on available funds for instruction and other costs.

Glenn Hills High School Principal Wayne Frazier said another underfunded No Child Left Behind mandate is the class-size requirement. Dr. Frazier said according to the original federal guideline, his classes should be around 20 students to one teacher. However, he said, to get to that level money would be needed for more teachers. Instead, the school system occasionally requests waivers from the state to allow a larger classes.

"The intent of No Child Left Behind is well and good, but it means nothing if there's no money to back up all of this stuff," he said.

Testing and the positives

Dr. Soloff said No Child Left Behind has brought about a greater focus on minority and economically disadvantaged subgroups, which she considers one of its biggest advantages.

"I would say on the pro side it's definitely made us more accountable for our student achievement, and we're looking more closely at subgroups," she said.

When it comes to testing, the overall measure of a school and system comes down to whether you're on a Needs Improvement list or considered making Adequate Yearly Progress.

AYP includes test participation, academic achievement and a "second indicator" that includes the graduation rate. In Richmond County, testing results and graduation rates have been improving in recent years, with three more schools recently being removed from the Needs Improvement List.

In Columbia County, Harlem High and North Harlem Elementary failed to make AYP in the most recent report, released in October, but they did show improvement from a preliminary report issued earlier in 2009.

Calls and e-mails to Aiken County Superintendent Beth Everitt were not returned.

Steve Dolinger, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said his group supports "the concept" of No Child Left Behind, noting that it "put a spotlight on data for the first time."

Some negative aspects

Dr. Soloff said the testing doesn't allow special-needs students to be classified as a subgroup. She said they aren't tested on different criteria from other students, meaning their results are factored in the same, and that can hurt a school's overall figures.

"We're holding everybody accountable for the same standards. ... Those (special needs) students should not be held to the same standards as our gifted and average to above average," she said.

"Special-education expectations for student performance need to be modified," added Dr. Bedden.

Dr. Frazier said when he was at Tubman Middle School he noticed another difficulty.

"We were weighted on No Child Left Behind based on student attendance, which we had zero control over," he said, adding that to address the issue he and some of his teachers would go to students' homes to make sure they made it to class.

"The key thing is everybody's not going to do that," he said.

Susan Walker, the director of policy and research for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said under the act schools also are measured on meeting a specific bar but not on how much they've improved.

"There's the bar, and you either meet it or you don't meet it," she said, adding that in any reauthorization of the bill a better measure of student growth will be "a critical piece."

Leaving no children behind

Pamela Ward, the principal of Glenn Hills Elementary, said No Child Left Behind was "an eye-opener for all of us," but she's seen mostly positives.

"First of all, it forced us to look at individual students and their particular needs and see that some were about to be left behind," she said. "It has given each of us as educators a chance to explore our teaching strategies and to realize that we had to change some of the ways we were doing things in the classroom."

Her school began "progress monitoring," through which students are regularly assessed throughout the year, instead of only at the end of a semester or the school year.

"We are catching children that are having difficulties earlier and intervening sooner so that the children become more successful."

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3851 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.