January 13, 2012 10:58:00 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The No Child Left Behind Act was hailed as a solution to the nation's education woes when signed into law in 2002. The legislation was complex, but the desired outcome was simple: better teachers, better schools and better education, particularly for minorities and underprivileged children.
Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the act, leaving educators across the nation -- and in the Golden Triangle -- questioning whether the legislation has succeeded in its goals and where the nation's schools should go from here.
Critics say the law encourages "teaching to the test," emphasizing reading and math at the expense of other subjects, labeling schools as failing when progress is being made too slowly and "gaming the system" by lowering standards, or excluding the scores of specific students, to improve test scores.
Proponents say the law brought greater accountability through annual standardized testing, performance benchmarks, "report cards" ranking schools from best (star schools) to worst (failing schools) and options for students at failing schools to transfer or receive free tutoring and after-school support.
One of the bigger problems local school districts face is meeting federal requirements despite a dearth of federal funding. It's a struggle throughout Mississippi, where school poverty rates hover at 62 percent, but city and county schools in Lowndes and Oktibbeha exceed those rates.
In Columbus city schools, nearly 78 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. The district itself faces a constant budget crunch, declaring a shortfall the past nine of 10 years.
Interim Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell supported the act when it was initially presented, believing the intent of the law was "pure and justified." She liked the emphasis on accountability and the glut of data mandated testing provided.
Though she still supports the law, her initial concern remains: Schools have the data but little financial support to rectify problems. Even if schools determine that smaller class sizes, tutoring or enrichment programs are needed, they can't always find money to pay for them.
"You have the answers, but you don't have the help," Liddell said Monday morning.
The Starkville School District didn't offer after-school tutoring at all this year. The reason? They were relying upon a federal grant, Assistant Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin said. By the time officials realized they wouldn't receive a grant this year, their budget had been finalized.
"We were struggling before, financially," Gonsoulin said. "(No Child Left Behind) puts some of your harshest regulations on your most impoverished areas."
In Starkville's city schools, approximately 68 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch.
Time for revision
Like Liddell, Gonsoulin liked the accountability measures of NCLB, and for the most part, he still supports it. But he, along with some politicians, wants to see a revamped version, eliminating federally mandated exit exams and high-stakes testing and placing a higher emphasis on individual student growth.
Currently, teachers whose students consistently fail to show academic growth could be fired. Likewise, he said, schools that are "growing kids by leaps and bounds" might still be labeled as failing.
"This is not a business," Gonsoulin said. "This is not an assembly line where you put pressure and people produce. This is about teaching and learning."
He said rather than providing an equitable education for poor students and minorities, the law has had the opposite effect, making sure "no rich child is left behind."
But overall, the law has improved education in the state, said Cliff Reynolds, principal of West Lowndes High School.
He supported the initiative 10 years ago when he was working as a teacher at New Hope High School, and he continues to believe it is "a noble piece of legislation."
The new accountability models were stressful on teachers, he said, but students who previously were "pushed to the side," such as those in special education, suddenly counted.
Though his school ranked as low-performing this year -- a step above the previous two years when it was placed on academic watch -- Reynolds supports state testing, saying it has had a positive impact on education.
He questions the feasibility of a federal mandate that all students perform on grade level in reading and math by 2014. According to the Center on Education Policy, nearly half of the nation's schools failed to meet federal standards last year.
In September, President Barack Obama announced plans to offer waivers for struggling states, allowing schools, districts and states more flexibility in decision-making.
Although Mississippi was the sixth state to adopt the legislation, the state is now working on its application for waiver, said Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Lynn House.
The poverty factor
House said NCLB has been successful in bringing accountability and assessments to the forefront of conversation but some of the finer points of the legislation "are impractical and have had no positive impact on student achievement as the law stands today."
In addition, the state's high poverty rate precludes student access to many opportunities, especially in the early years. That makes it difficult for those students to catch up once they reach school age, she said, adding that poverty affects everything, from educational experiences to health and well-being.
Despite the challenges Mississippi faces and any shortcomings NCLB may have, House remains confident in the future of the state's children.
"While Mississippi definitely has a great number of students who come from households below the poverty threshold, many of them do well in school through the efforts of concerned parents, great teachers and solid programs put in place by superintendents and principals," House said. "We cannot let poverty be a reason for failure to help our students achieve at the highest level possible."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.