Sunday, October 09, 2011

Caught In the Middle: Local schools seek relief from No Child Left Behind

Neal Morton | The Monitor
October 07, 2011

Local educators likely will have to continue living with the widely criticized federal No Child Left Behind education law, which flunked nearly one-third of all Hidalgo County schools this year.

Last month, President Barack Obama detailed several education reforms that states must fulfill before he grants waivers to the bill’s stringent requirement that 100 percent of students reach math and reading proficiency by 2014.

But Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott recently hinted the White House has not convinced him the state needs to apply for a waiver.

“He is leaning toward not applying, but he hasn’t decided,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

Local superintendents criticized the controversial No Child Left Behind bill, or NCLB, this summer when it failed 104 local campuses – a staggering 39 percent – for not keeping up with its rising standards toward 100 percent proficiency.

However, they may face further frustration and more disappointing ratings next year since Scott has expressed concerns with the president’s list of reforms. Specifically, Ratcliffe said, the requirement that a state’s best teachers serve in the most challenging or struggling schools worried the commissioner.

“Currently staffing is left up to our local school districts to decide, and so he was very uncomfortable with having the U.S. Department of Education tell him to tell schools who to staff and where to staff in each school,” Ratcliffe said. “He felt that was quite an overreach.”

She added that Scott also skeptically viewed the president’s reliance on so-called Common Core standards, a nationwide framework for school curriculum that all but six states, including Texas, have adopted.

Republican presidential hopeful and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has lambasted the Common Core initiative as an “irresponsible” attempt to give bureaucrats and special interest groups power over local educational decisions.

Obama said states filing for waivers do not need to adopt Common Core standards, yet Ratcliffe said some worry remained about a “roundabout way” the president devised to implement them.

“You can get the waiver without having the Common Core standards, but you had multiple extra steps to go through to verify everything,” said Ratcliffe, who added those steps were “definitely designed” to still push the standards.


The state’s reluctance to apply for the waivers and grant educators relief has frustrated local school officials.

Scott Owings, Sharyland schools superintendent, suggested Perry cared more about his presidential campaign than the future of his state’s schools.

“The children of Texas should not be held hostage to campaign tactics,” Owings said in an email. “The waivers are a good idea since the split (U.S.) Congress has not been able to act” on NCLB.

“I do not believe the TEA commissioner and the governor will allow Texas to apply,” he added, though he said he was encouraged by U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan’s “comments that individual districts may be able to apply if their state will not.”

The Sharyland district as a whole missed the NCLB mark this year, though only because of the bill’s convoluted rules governing alternative testing for special education students.

Currently, only 3 percent of students who qualify to take a modified exam can. And the federal accountability system automatically counts as failing any student above that 3 percent cap who takes an alternative test.

“This aspect of the system is totally contradictory to the original intent of (NCLB),” Owings said when the ratings came out last August.

“We will continue to do what is appropriate educationally for our special education students. We want to challenge them,” he added, “but (we) will not test them at a level that is unrealistic and frustrating to their level of ability.”

Several Hidalgo County district heads echoed his complaints, and in Edinburg, Superintendent Rene Gutierrez said he and his colleagues would begin writing to the commissioner to plead for him to apply for an NCLB waiver.


Ratcliffe said Scott could make a decision within the next couple of weeks, prior to a November application deadline, or wait before another in February.

If, as many predict, he and Perry thumb their noses at Obama’s reform agenda, local districts must still comply with NCLB’s ever-rising standards. However, they may have some help.

Under the federal law, the state releases “school improvement program,” or SIP, grants to provide extra tutoring, improved curriculum and more faculty at struggling schools.

Last year, the La Joya school district and its Ann Richards Middle School escaped NCLB sanctions because Superintendent Alda Benavides effectively used SIP funds to post great improvement.

The “key is responding to intervention, providing the right strategy for each student and building the capacity of teachers,” Benavides wrote in a letter.

She drew from her own district’s experience to offer advice to frustrated neighbors.

Benavides said additional money should go toward staff development, research-based evaluations and more if schools must live with NCLB and its “tougher standards.”

“Monitor the implementation of all supplemental programs so that they are implemented with fidelity and constant, constant evaluation of each students’ progress,” she advised. “The extra tutoring and support that we can provide to schools as they work diligently…take time and money, so the dollars do help.”

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