Wednesday, December 29, 2004

'No Child' Law Leaves Schools' Old Ways Behind

By Michael Dobbs

Washington Post

Thursday, April 22, 2004; Page A01

WARREN TOWNSHIP, Ind. -- Raymond Park Middle School lost its two arts teachers last year. Home economics was eliminated, along with most foreign-language classes and some physical education classes. The overwhelming priority these days is getting students to grade level in reading and math.

Instead of an art department, Raymond Park now has a computer wizard who, with a few clicks of a mouse, can produce charts of students lagging behind state and federal performance targets. An education consultant from Texas, preaching a business-driven model known as total quality management, has reorganized the curriculum into three-week chunks, each of which leads up to a test.

The changes at Raymond Park, a racially mixed school in a working-class suburb of Indianapolis, are symptomatic of an educational revolution symbolized and accelerated by President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind initiative. An ever-increasing nationwide preoccupation with results and accountability is reaching down into the classroom, changing the way students are taught and causing teachers and administrators to rethink the practices of a lifetime.

"It hurts me to give up art, but it hurts me even more to have kids who can't read," said Raymond Park's principal, Kathy Deck. "I have to decide where I will get the biggest bang for my buck."

Like many principals, Deck has embraced the goals of No Child Left Behind, which center on a commitment to make every student in the country proficient in reading and math by 2014. She says the law has helped focus attention on the needs of frequently ignored groups of youngsters, including minorities and special-education students. She is also in favor of schools being held accountable for their performance.

But the principal's enthusiasm for the Bush education reforms is tempered by the knowledge that her school, like many others, will probably never be able to meet the performance targets. Several characteristics of the student body have historically correlated with low test scores: Nearly one out of four Raymond Park students is in special education; 35 percent are African American; 54 percent are eligible for subsidized lunches, a common benchmark of poverty. Under No Child Left Behind, every subgroup is required to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" until it reaches 100 percent proficiency.

Test scores at Raymond Park have improved somewhat over the past two years, but the school has still fallen well short of the federal targets. The results have been mixed, with a jump in performance in the sixth grade but stagnation in the eighth grade, particularly in reading.

"We will always fail," said Melissa Gogel, a sixth-grade special-ed teacher, whose students include several nonreaders and several reading on a third- or fourth-grade level. "The government is trying to put everybody in one melting pot and say that everybody has to pass the same test." She says she is teaching her students demonstrative pronouns when she should be teaching them life skills.

In theory, Gogel's students spend four and sometimes five hours a day on reading and math. In practice, it is hard to retain their attention for more than a few minutes. On a recent day, one student was playing video games on a computer at the back of the classroom while Gogel was threatening to send another to the principal for disruptive behavior.

According to a recent study by the Center for Basic Education, a Washington-based think tank, many U.S. schools are reporting a narrowing of the curriculum as a result of the new emphasis on reading and math. The impact of No Child Left Behind has been particularly great in schools with large minority populations which tend to have lower test scores and are under the most pressure to improve.

Roughly eight in 10 principals of such schools surveyed by the center reported an increase in instructional time for math and reading over the past three years. A third of these principals reported a loss of instructional time for the arts, and 42 percent anticipated further cuts in arts education.

Budget cuts in many states have compounded the problem, forcing principals and superintendents to make tough decisions on how to focus their resources. Faced with a financial shortfall, other Indiana districts have cut extracurricular activities, from school newspapers to the swim team to cheerleading coaches.

"It's the lopsidedness that I worry about," said Anne Young, principal of Clark Elementary School in Franklin, a rural community near Indianapolis. "The pressure on teachers [to improve test results] is enormous. Some young teachers only know the world of data. I want teachers to see faces, not numbers."

In a recent telephone interview, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige insisted that there was nothing in the No Child Left Behind law that obliges schools to do away with subjects such as art or music. At the same time, he defended the new emphasis on reading and math as a prerequisite to educational success, particularly for low-achieving students.

"A child that can't read is not going to learn history or civics," Paige said.

At Raymond Park, as in other Indiana schools, the accountability revolution did not happen overnight. It gathered pace during the 1990s as the nation's educational pendulum swung back to basics and away from liberal notions of the "whole child." Many of the business models now in vogue in American education were developed in southern states such as North Carolina and Texas during the Clinton era as a bipartisan response to a perceived decline in academic standards.

What distinguishes No Child Left Behind from the reforms of the Clinton period, say many educators, is the enforcement mechanism. Schools that fail to make the grade are obliged to implement costly remedial measures including special tutoring for at-risk students and busing kids to better-performing schools. If a school repeatedly fails to meet federal benchmarks, it can be dissolved or taken over by the state.

In Warren Township, a bedroom suburb of Indianapolis, the passage of No Child Left Behind coincided with the arrival of a new superintendent, Peggy Hinckley, in May 2001. Standardized test scores at Raymond Park and other Warren Township schools had fallen for two straight years, and Hinckley was determined to improve them.

"We are living in a results-oriented society," Hinckley said. "For a long time, education had been allowed to exist in a cocoon, without much pressure from outside. But it can't be exempt any longer. Everybody is looking for results, and we will do whatever we can to achieve them."

With the support of her school board, Hinckley adopted an approach modeled on the Texas town of Brazosport on the Gulf of Mexico, which reported stellar test results in the 1990s. She hired the former Brazosport curriculum director, Pat Davenport, as a consultant. Raymond Park was one of the first schools in the township to adopt the Brazosport method.

An educational version of industrial quality control, the Brazosport method monitors the progress of individual students toward clearly defined goals. Students who fail to answer at least two of four questions correctly on a mini-test must attend a remedial class, skipping physical education or health.

Middle Schools in Warren Township lost their art departments at the beginning of the school year, in part as a cost-saving measure and in part because of the overriding emphasis on math and reading. According to Ann Rice, who taught art at Raymond Park for 10 years, the district "softened the blow" on its staff by finding alternative positions for most of the newly redundant teachers, including herself.

Even so, she says, the decision came as a shock. "We felt we enabled more kids to be successful," she said, explaining that the arts program was a way of recognizing the talents of academically challenged students.

Davenport, who has trained hundreds of schools across the country in the Brazosport method, said she had never recommended cuts in arts or athletics programs. At the same time, she conceded, principals face a difficult choice in deciding how to apportion limited resources. "They don't test you on art," she said. "It's an enrichment activity."

Some teachers, in Indianapolis and in other cities across the country, welcome the changes that have come in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Some are waiting them out, betting that they will prove to be a passing educational fad. And some are in open rebellion.

"I am a much smarter teacher nowadays," said Kelly Patterson, who teaches eighth-grade math at Raymond Park. The Brazosport method, she says, has forced teachers to work together more collaboratively. "We are told what we need to do in a three-week period, and I plan my days accordingly."

Maurine Marchani, who has been teaching science for 36 years, is not so thrilled. She no longer has time for some of her most creative, memorable activities, such as having her students devise ways of packaging a raw egg so that it will survive being dropped from the ladder of a firetruck.

"For legislators to decide that we have to perform at a certain level or be sanctioned is ludicrous," she said. "If I were a neurosurgeon, they wouldn't dream of telling me what procedures I have to carry out."

Parents and school board members have had a mixed reaction to the changes ushered in by No Child Left Behind. "We felt the basics were more important," said the Warren Township school board president, Jay Wise, explaining why he went along with the focus on math and reading at the expense of narrowing the curriculum.

But Cindy Fulper, treasurer of the Raymond Park Parent Teacher Association, said: "There's too much emphasis on testing now. The schools are so busy meeting their goals that they aren't able to concentrate on what is best for their kids." She cites the example of her daughter Rachael, an eighth-grader, who "felt kind of cheated" when she learned that she would not be able to take German because the subject had been eliminated.

The difficulty of keeping pace with the goals of No Child Left Behind has led many administrators and principals to conclude that the law is in need of serious revision. Hinckley, the school superintendent, favors switching to a different kind of accountability system under which schools would be judged by their progress from year to year, rather than their ability to hit a set of rigid federal benchmarks.

"The federal Department of Education is obsessed with regulations," she said, leafing through the latest batch of directives from Washington. "They are trying to micromanage us -- and it is driving us crazy."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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