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Educators Seek More Flexibility in NCLB

Concerns that the No Child Left Behind Act is forcing schools to narrow their curriculums and stressing sanctions over incentives surfaced at different forums. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said some changes are likely to come. Included: Comments about NCLBs affects on curriculum and special education and ESL students.

The narrowing of some curriculums and the rigid school assessment formulas under the federal No Child Left Behind Act drew comments from researchers and educators at forums on different sides of the U.S.

Gordon Cawelti, a senior research associate at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Laboratory for Student Success, urged educators at the 2007 Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference in California to speak up when schools cut back on science, social studies, and other non-tested subjects so students can spend more time drilling on math and reading.

And at a Connecticut forum, local school, municipal, and community leaders told U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings that NCLBs rules for assessing special education students and those learning English are too rigid, as are the criteria for what constitutes a failing school.

Spellings told the Connecticut audience that the administration has been and is open to adjusting the law. We are only as smart at the Department of Education as what we know is going on in the schools, Spellings said.


Cawelti, a former ASCD executive director, said that despite federal education officials assertions that schools are not being forced to cut back on instruction in areas other than math and reading, it is happening anyway.

A survey by the Center of Education Policy showed that 71 percent of districts in the 50 states reported reducing time in at least one area to make more time for reading and math, according to Cawleti.

What is the impact on overall education of just teaching reading and math? he asked.

A survey by the Center of Education Policy showed that 71 percent of districts in the 50 states reported reducing time in at least one area to make more time for reading and math.

Cawelti said he saw the results of narrowed curriculum firsthand when he taught a lesson on the first American overland expedition to the Pacific coast by Sacagawea, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark to fourth-graders in a California school. Teaching the lesson became more difficult in the past few years, he said, because not only did the students not know who Lewis and Clark were, but they knew very little about U.S. history and geography in general.

I wouldnt let kids graduate without knowing about the colonies and the founding of the country, Cawelti said.

One educator at the presentation said that teachers in his school are required to log how many minutes a day they spend teaching language arts, to ensure they put in the required amount of time.

Many parents also are starting to resent the intensive focus on math and reading at the expense of other subjects and Cawelti urged educators to take an active role in reversing the trend.

One principal, though, said there are other ways to spend more time on language arts without just drilling. De-emphasize minutes and integrate reading into subject areas, he said. You should be doing that already.

Still, Cawelti suggested that educators look at the situation in their schools and get involved to effect change, while at the same time learning about common curriculum models.

We have to find some way of coming at it [curriculum narrowing] full force, different from the way weve been doing it, Cawelti said. We need to make a strong case about what impact it is having on education.


At a forum in Stamford, Connecticut, two months later, Spellings said national testing data indicates that students are learning more than just reading and math.

Congress targeted reading and math initially, she said to reporters after the forum. But weve received some encouraging data from NAEP -- there have some improvement in social studies and civics scores. This is encouraging news around social studies and civics; and students need to be able to read tests in order to answer questions.

Overall, NCLB is fulfilling its mission, Spellings told area educators and community leaders. We passed the very best law we could have five years ago, she said. This law is working -- were starting to peel the layers off the onion and closing the achievement gap. Seventy percent of schools are making NCLB targets. We do need more flexibility for limited English and special education students. If we want to make it perfect and tweak aspects of the act, this is the time to act.

Speakers told Spellings, though, they would like to see fewer penalties and more rewards for schools showing improvement, as well as more accommodations for testing special education students and those learning English.

We passed the very best law we could have five years ago. This law is working -- were starting to peel the layers off the onion and closing the achievement gap. Seventy percent of schools are making NCLB targets.

I worry about the way programs are gauged, said Dr. Gary Richards, superintendent of the Wilton Public Schools . I worry about the demoralization of students, parents, and teachers who make heroic efforts and are still listed as failing.

Craig Kelly of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP noted, When a school fails, the parent feels like his or her child has failed as well.

Eileen-Lymus Swerdlick, assistant superintendent for elementary education for the Stamford Public Schools , suggested that the law emphasize incentives over sanctions. I have a sense that people dont disagree with improvement, she said. We need to build in more incentives and provide more incentives for improvement.

What are we carefully and consistently doing to keep people motivated? Were very hard on practitioners who work hard and you can tell are feeling discouraged.

In her introduction, Spelling said that education officials are aware of that issue. The President thinks we need to be more nuanced in enforcing the act. I think we need to make distinctions between schools that are just missing on one subgroup or one area and those that are chronically failing.


Dr. Richards suggested that the Department of Education allow school systems to use growth models to measure student improvement. Growth models track the progress of students as they move from grade to grade.

I am a huge fan of growth models, Spellings said. I have given five states waivers for growth models. Now that we have an annual assessment, we want this to be the law of the land; we dont want to keep issuing waivers. We want this to be part of the law.

Another teacher noted that high-stakes tests can be too stressful for special education students.

Ive watched some students literally just sit for an hour [during a test] and its painful, said Jean ONeill, a special education teacher in Stamford.

While NCLB used to allow 2 percent of special education students to take additional or alternative assessments, now its 3 percent, Spellings said. These take very sophisticated assessments. Its wonderful for students to get feedback about what they are learning.

As for ESL students, if children were born in the U.S. and have lived here several years, its not unreasonable to expect them to read English by third grade, Spellings said.

Seventy-five percent of ESL students have been here more than five years, she said. We have to distinguish between them and recent arrivals.

While many see NCLB as flawed, it is necessary to ensure that all students are getting an equal education, said Reverend Lindsay E Curtis, president of the Norwalk NAACP. A lot of us in the community dont feel this is the best legislation, but it is the best game in town, he said. Too many of our kids are being left behind. Maybe we need to get more businesses and private entities involved.

Spellings in turn called the speakers comments very affirming. No one wants the law to work more than the secretary of education.