Birthday wish for new reform of reform law


Anniversary: States need added help, flexibility from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

January 08, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TODAY IS THE birthday of Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Elvis Presley and the No Child Left Behind Act.

I hope the first two have many more birthdays. As for the act, signed into law by President Bush last Jan. 8, it no doubt will live on, too, but will collapse of its own weight if Congress and the Bush administration don't perform some serious repairs.

No Child Left Behind demands so much of the states in its implementation - and the federal Department of Education has been so unyielding in its role as referee - that there is a growing rebellion among state and local educators and politicians.

"Legislators and governors are beginning to understand that in exchange for 7 to 8 percent of total education funding in the United States, the federal government has seized the field," says Lloyd G. Jackson, former chairman of the Senate Education Committee in West Virginia.

As the law now stands, schools have to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" in student achievement or face sanctions that could lead eventually to being closed. The Department of Education's inflexibility in administering the law means that in some states, the vast majority of schools will be put on the "needs improvement" list.

"That will make elected officials in those states easy targets," says Jackson, a Democrat. "Governors and legislators are going to have to make up their minds whether they're running for or against public education."

A few days ago, the independent Center on Education Policy, which spent nearly half a year interviewing officials in 48 states, said that without more flexibility and federal money to cover "unfunded mandates," the much-heralded law could fail.

An education undersecretary responded that the first year has been a good one, given the complexity of No Child Left Behind, and Bush proposed another $1 billion in spending on high-poverty schools for next year.

"If this thing is going to work," says Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based compact of Southern and border states, "there has to be midcourse corrections. We made nine flight corrections when we landed on the moon. If we hadn't done that, we'd have missed it."

Musick, Jackson and many others are loving critics. None dismisses the need for reform in American education. Musick calls No Child Left Behind "the most important education legislation to come out of the federal government."

And no doubt reform is necessary, says Musick. He uses North Carolina as an example. Under its program, five schools, all high schools, are designated as low-performing and in need of rescue. Computer runs show that under the new federal law, 70 percent of the state's schools would be in the failing category.

"Neither extreme makes any sense," says Musick.

A case study could be made of the act's requirement that all schools must have highly qualified teachers by 2005. That means having teachers who are certified and have been trained in the "content area" in which they're teaching.

But Education Week's seventh annual report on the status of education reform, released yesterday, shows that although most states are trying to get qualified teachers in classrooms where they're most needed - that is, in high-poverty, high-minority schools - most of them aren't succeeding.

Maryland gets fairly good marks in the Education Week report. Almost 2,800 teachers, 1,200 of them in Baltimore, took advantage this year of $2,000 stipends for teaching in low-performing schools. Mentors work with new teachers in these schools. Measures such as these and others have "created a lot of stability," says Grasmick.

Still, 41 percent of Maryland students in high-minority high schools don't get a highly qualified teacher, according to the Education Week report.

"It's very complex and very difficult," says Edna Mora Szymanski, dean of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's not only hard to recruit good people to a field that doesn't pay well. It's particularly hard to recruit highly qualified people."

Publicly, the educators and policy-makers haven't given up on meeting the No Child Left Behind deadlines. They say things such as, "It'll be a challenge."

But privately, they predict that unless changes are made, the chances of fulfilling the act's ambitious goals in the time allowed are about the same as those of Elvis appearing in Memphis today to blow out the candles.

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