State educators ask Duncan to rework No Child Left Behind

Great Falls Tribune

by Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — Valley View Elementary School Principal Rhonda McCarty has some strong views about No Child Left Behind, chiefly that the federal law’s labeling of schools as failing is so deflating to students and teachers — and so counterproductive to educational improvement — that its sanctions should be scrapped for the 2011-12 school year.

“How ‘bout we fix the law?” was the response from the one person who could actually follow through on her suggestion: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“We want to see you fix it,” McCarty said to Duncan as she warned him that upcoming test results threaten to add many more schools to the state’s list of those not making “adequate yearly progress,” and will stretch already tight resources being used to help the poorest performers.

“If we label everyone else, we’re going to have to have a greater shame mentality in our state, which doesn’t help our communities, our students or our staff,” McCarty said. “We’re asking if you could suspend it while you fix it.”

The principal of the Great Falls school, which made adequate progress based on 2009-10 scores, was part of a small contingent of Montana educators who got a rare chance Tuesday to speak face-to-face with the nation’s highest education official. The meeting was held in the Capitol Hill office of Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who wanted Duncan, a former Chicago school superintendent, to hear the views of rural educators.

The group raised a number of issues, including: »The cost of teaching a disproportionately high number of children with disabilities or special needs; »The challenges of educating kids battling breathtaking poverty and suicide on Indian reservations; »Small populations that can’t afford the staffing flexibility that communities in other states enjoy; and »The lack of competitive salaries.

George Rider, principal of Scobey High School in Scobey, Mont., told Duncan that a teacher making $30,000 recently left to become a truck driver — and more than doubled his salary.

Duncan, who has visited Montana schools, listened attentively and sympathetically, but made no promises other than a commitment to revamp No Child Left Behind. A centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s domestic agenda, the law requires states to increase testing in reading and math; track and report those results by different subgroups of students based on race, poverty status, special education and English proficiency; and set their own academic standards by which schools would be judged as making adequate progress. Schools that persistently fall short face staff removals and, in the worst cases, closure.

Last year, 225 of Montana’s 823 public schools — 27 — percent did not make adequate yearly progress, according to the state Office of Public Instruction.

The law also requires almost every student to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, a standard most analysts say is unattainable.

“Much of the work we do does center around academic achievement, and we respect and appreciate those standards,” said McCarty, who also serves as director of federal relations for the Montana Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals. “But much of the work we do cannot be quantified with a test score.”

Duncan and President Barack Obama have pushed for a revised law that moves away from the 2014 target, and instead rewards schools for showing growth from year to year without some of the most punitive elements. However, Duncan said there is no plan to waive accountability rules, which is what McCarty and many other educators want.

“We are actively trying to get this fixed before we go back to school this fall,” he told McCarty. “My intent now is not to try and fix it piecemeal for your district or for one state. My goal is to fix it for the country. This is broken for the kids, it’s broken for the teachers, it’s broken for parents, it’s broken for principals. I want to fix the thing. I think we can do it in a common-sense way, and so we’re putting a huge amount of our time and energy into doing that.”