from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Democratic Senators try to improve NCLB 

cross-posted at dailykos, myleftwing, teacherken.blogspot.com

For those who do not know, No Child Left Behind, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is due for reauthorization in 2007. Although one may strongly oppose many of the elements of the current law (as I do), there will still need to be a new ESEA act in 2007. While I would prefer that the name (NCLB) be replaced, I believe the Federal government does have a role to play in public education, and thus it is important to make the law as realistic and effective as possible, while at the same time minimizing the damage it can potentially do. While I do not like the frame of “high standards” et al, I encourage any attempt that proposes to significantly move the law in a positive direction

A group of Democratic Senators from rural states has recently offered something I think worth noting. I will offer a press release from one of them, Sen. Tim Johnson of SD, and then offer a few comments of my own.

The press release was obtained from here at the Senator’s website. It is entitled Johnson Works to Improve No Child Left Behind and was released on Tuesday, February 21.

Washington, DC— U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) today joined with colleagues in recommending concrete areas within the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act regulations that should be closely reviewed and improved by Congress.

"I applaud efforts to raise standards and achievement in our nation's schools, but there are very real problems with No Child Left Behind that need to be addressed," Johnson said. "We all want students to reach high standards, but we need to make sure educators have the resources and the flexibility they need to ensure student achievement."

Johnson and his colleagues wrote to the leadership of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which has jurisdiction for NCLB. The Senators provided a list of suggested topics for any upcoming hearings related to the implementation of NCLB to enhance flexibility and improve the program.

"Unfortunately, many educators, administrators, students, and parents are still struggling to wade through the maze of new, and often complex, rules and regulations associated with NCLB. Every state and every school district is different, and we are concerned that the Department's rigid approach to implementation to date has not taken into account, and could actually undermine, the variety of successful and innovative education methods that exist around the country," the Senators wrote, referencing the U.S. Department of Education.

Hearing topics that the Senators recommended include:

-The unique circumstances of rural and smaller school districts

-The effect of crucial programs such as Title I and special education at the federal level

-The federal sanctions structure, which is more focused on taking away from schools than targeting resources to schools that need them most

-The need for additional federal funding for professional development, teacher and principal recruitment and retention to meet NCLB requirements for highly qualified teachers

-Ongoing efforts to align NCLB and the Individuals with Disabilities Act

In 2003, Johnson and several other Senators from rural states requested that the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a study on the unique challenges facing rural school districts in complying with NCLB. That study found that more needed to be done for rural districts, including additional assistance and greater flexibility.

Johnson also believes that it's important to consistently fund education programs. The President's recently proposed budget would make a $2.1 billion reduction -- the largest cut to federal education funding in the 26-year history of the Education Department. As a member of both the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committees, Johnson will work to restore those cuts.


The four suggested topics for hearings are all crucial and important.

For example, far too much of the discussion of the need to improve or assist public schools focuses on inner city schools. And yet many schools in rural areas have rather unique problems. As one example, they lack ready access to high speed internet connections, which places students at a distinct disadvantage. Many useful materials on the web are not realistically usable without a high-speed connection. Further, rural schools tend to be smaller, and thus lack the critical mass necessary to support a broader range of course offerings. These can be supplemented by online courses and course support, but again without access to high speed internet connections that is not feasible.

In education we often discuss the need for alignment, for example, between standards and testing on one hand and what is actually taught on the other. One thing that can be very frustrating is when communities and/or states are presented with conflicting Federal mandates, or programs that can not easily be aligned. IDEA is the key legislation on special education. It is supposed to guarantee certain rights for students with a wide range of identified disabilities. And yet NCLB as currently implemented often presents schools with a conflict between what IDEA is supposed to accomplish and what NCLB requires. This point is one that benefits all of our schools.

As a professional teacher I very much agree with the idea that if we want :highly qualified” teachers for all of our students that we need to address the issue of professional development. Perhaps at some point someone (it doesn’t have to be me) can do a diary that explains some of the issues about doing professional development (who pays, is it done during the school day or does it become yet one additional burden of time for the teachers, etc.), but obtaining and retaining a skilled teacher force is a key to effective public schools. This can be especially difficult in rural communities that do not have easy access to things like state universities or a ready mass of teachers to sustain ongoing development programs in specific curricular areas. Here again access to affordable high speed internet connections can be crucial.

The point on sanctions, that they are punitive and do not realistically guide resources to schools that most need them for improvement, is one of the key weaknesses of the current legislation. I believe the mentality of such an approach is entirely wrong. As a teacher, attempting to inspire learning by threats of punishment are rarely effective. The end result is that the students tend to do whatever is MINIMALLY necessary to avoid the punishment. The use of tests with sanctions leads to the ever-present question in class “will it be on the test?” This promotes a mentality that is alien to attempting to truly understand and/or develop an ability to interact with a domain independently.

The press release is several weeks old, but I think it useful to share with this community, especially as there are many here involved with political campaigns, especially for Federal office. I believe Sen. Johnson and the others have done a valued service in raising the issues that they have. As I will reiterate one more time, I believe that education is crucial to the future of our democracy, and as an issue is one which greatly favors Democrats, but only if properly framed. I think it is good that the Senators propose hearings -- this can be a way of including more voices, but only if these hearings are not done as are so many things by this administration, as a variety of a “Potemkin Village” that gives the surface appearance of open hearings but restricts the voices actually allowed to be heard to those who advocate position in accord with the administration’s predetermined goals.

That said, I would be interested in the reactions of others to what I have posted. I am about to leave for a very full school day, but I will check back from time to time to see what others have offered.

Have a nice day.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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