Apodaca: It's time to reform No Child Left Behind

A recent presentation before the Newport-Mesa school board underscored both the strengths and weaknesses of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act.

NCLB, a decade old this year, has created a deep well of data on student achievement, exposed great disparities in progress in reading and math, and made schools accountable for improving student performance.

On the minus side, however, are problems so troubling that many critics have called for a complete overhaul of NCLB. Though the goals of "No Child" are worthy, they say, it's time to go back to the drawing board on education reform.

Among the criticisms: The law set up a steep curve for improvement that is nearly impossible to achieve; it forces teachers to abandon creativity and valuable lessons in favor of "teaching to the test," and it has led some states to lower their standards in order to meet rigid benchmarks.

Detractors also worry that diverting too much attention to low-performing students in order to boost scores might be shortchanging the needs of other children.

Even those who once backed NCLB now say the bad outweighs the good. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was recently quoted saying that NCLB is "like taking a hammer to kill an ant."

Newport-Mesa Unified administrators used a different analogy at the recent study session: Hockey.

Taking board members through an impressive, though somewhat overwhelming, display of statistics, the officials repeatedly pointed to a "hockey stick" formation on various graphs, and referred to schools in the "penalty box." There was mention of "running the Zamboni," although the meaning behind the reference to the ice-resurfacing machine escaped me.

Nevertheless, the point of the exhaustive report was clear. As Assistant Supt. Charles Hinman told the board, "We need to do more to help our struggling students."

The subtext was equally evident. There is absolutely no way that Newport-Mesa — or pretty much every other district for that matter — will close the NCLB gap within two years.

According to the law, schools must be in full compliance with federal standards by 2014, meaning that all students must score in the proficient or advanced range by then.

Many schools in Newport-Mesa have a long way to go to meet that goal. Some schools in the district have been in the Program Improvement category — the "penalty box" — for many years. A school is initially designated PI when it has failed to achieve the required improvement in language arts and math assessments for three consecutive years.

Eleven schools in the district are in PI. Pomona and Wilson elementary schools have fared the worst, with nine years each in PI, followed by TeWinkle Middle School with eight years, and Rea Elementary with seven.

As is common with PI schools, Newport-Mesa's underperforming schools have heavy populations of minority, economically disadvantaged and special-education students. Thus, attempts to raise scores target these groups.

Hinman and the rest of the panel presented the board with five options — "power plays," they called them — to try to pull the lagging schools into compliance. They included extra teaching hours at the 11 PI schools, a so-called dual-language program for English learners, a reading intervention program, and two different staff-development programs that have shown positive results in other districts.

The initiatives varied in cost, but each would involve initial outlays ranging from a few hundred thousand to several hundred thousand dollars, with some measure of ongoing costs thereafter.

Where will the money come from considering California's education budget is so busted there have even been threats of reducing the school year?

The district has applied for a return of $500,000 in Title 1 money that is currently diverted to private tutoring. But there is no guarantee that the request will be granted, and it's hard to imagine in the current belt-tightening climate that other funds will be forthcoming.

Absent any new funding, the district will be forced to squeeze blood out of the existing budget to direct toward PI initiatives.

Anyone in public education these days knows how difficult it will be to budge some stubborn numbers ever higher, much less meet the steep trajectory required by NCLB.

Indeed, a note of anxiety permeated the study session, as if the presenters were like Scotty from "Star Trek," pleading, "I'm giving it all I got, Captain!"

Board members, in turn, engaged in a few testy exchanges.

Hinman later told me he is confident that student achievement will improve, though he acknowledged that the two-year deadline is completely unrealistic.

"Are we meeting the NCLB timeline? Absolutely not," he said. "But there's consistent growth, and as long as we have consistent growth we'll have the support of the community."

And what happens in two years, when many schools receive failing grades?

As NCLB currently stands, in a worst-case scenario some schools could face wholesale firings, or even closures.

Look to NCLB to be modified, at the very least, to give schools more time to reach full compliance. Even now, federal officials are offering some relief in return for other concessions.

But if the law is changed, its legacy will likely remain. The practice of holding schools accountable by issuing report cards and demanding improvement is now an accepted part of our public education system. It will continue to be so, with or without NCLB.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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