By most measures, Cathy Freidinger is living the public school American dream.
Her four kids walk or bike to neighborhood schools ranked among the best in the state, so flush with property tax dollars they still offer music, art and drama programs considered luxuries in other districts.
Later this summer, though, she’ll get a letter asking whether she wants to bus her third-grader to a different school in District 34, because Hoffman Elementary is considered “in need of improvement” under the ever-increasing strictures of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
States offered a reprieve
When the Obama administration announced on Monday that it would begin offering states waivers from the legislation passed in 2001, stories like District 34’s are one reason why.
Something is amiss when schools that are so good parents will fake an address to get their kids into them are labeled failing, administrators, parents and teachers say.
“If you offered everyone choice, people would be choosing to go into these schools, not leaving,” said Gerald Hill, superintendent of District 34.
At least 80 percent of U.S. public schools will be labeled failing under No Child Left Behind this year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced this week. With statistics so high, many researchers say the term 'failing' is rendered meaningless.
The law requires schools that fail to meet AYP two years in a row and receive federal funding to pay for transportation to a school of the parent’s choice, but considering the low "pass" rate, it’s unclear where all those students would have to go.
Details will come out in September, but to get waivers from No Child Left Behind, states will be asked to submit their own reform proposals including plans for teacher evaluation and measuring student achievement.
Illinois is interested
Illinois, where 51.1 percent of all schools failed to make AYP in 2010, is likely to get in line for a waiver said Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
“We are certainly interested and will explore it,” Fergus said. “We need to see the details.”
The Illinois board is among those who have been loudly calling for Congress to reform the law to measure how much students learn from year to year rather than setting a single target for them all.
With that legislation creeping uncertainly along and a tsunami of sanctions headed towards the states this fall, the administration acted unilaterally this week to avert disaster.
Illinois was among a dozen last year where more schools missed the mark than made it, and this year’s percentage of failing schools is expected to surge when the 2011 statewide results are announced in September. Individual schools already have their results.
Glenview's 'choice' schools
Glen Grove Elementary and Springman Middle School in Dist. 34 are among this year’s “failing” schools.
Hoffman actually hit the moving “adequate yearly progress” target this year, but it must still offer school choice because it missed the mark the two previous years.
Offered the option to move out of district last year, not one parent pulled their child out of the school.
“I would be shocked if any of our parents decided to leave Hoffman,” said Freidinger, who also plans to keep her two middle schoolers at Springman.
Glen Grove is in its second year of failing to make AYP, but unlike Hoffman, won’t be required to offer school choice because it doesn’t have a high enough percentage of low-income students to get federal funding.
The loss of federal funds is the “stick” that NCLB uses to sanction schools, up to and including forced closure or reorganization.
Glen Grove Principal Helena Vena said when individual student gains are measured her school is “a huge success,” not a failure, scoring in the 92nd percentile in reading and 85th percentile in math nationwide.
“It’ll be good when we’re judged on growth, because we know every student comes to us at a different starting point,” Vena said.
A middling target misses many
Some children come into a school year well behind their peers and others far ahead. Setting a single target, as No Child Left Behind calls on states to do, sets a bar hopelessly beyond the reach of the first child while doing nothing to challenge the second, researchers say.
Northwestern University economist David Figlio told D.C. policymakers in February they should consider a hybrid approach that measures how much each child learns in a given year while continuing the law’s current focus on traditionally disadvantaged groups.
Superintendent Hill praised No Child Left Behind's emphasis on making progress in all subgroups such as special education students, those from low-income families and those with limited English proficiency.
"We should have been doing that before and I give kudos to the legislators and think that has been very valuable," Hill said.
It's of paramount importance, Hill said, to make sure the children not feel blame or responsibility when a school is punished.
The Illinois State Board of Education wants Congress to scrap NCLB and pass a new law focused on individualized learning gains and positive incentives, Fergus said.
“We need to look at a law where there are fewer punitive measures and one that reflects student growth,” she said.
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