March 2011 Up Front

Guiding principles for Congress in reauthorizing ESEA
Michael A. Resnick

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the chairs of House and Senate education committees are likely to take very different approaches to their review of the law. But, regardless of the approach, Congress must allow seven principles to guide its work for the process and the ultimate product to be successful.

On the Senate side, Education Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) appears to be following the approach of previous reauthorizations by addressing all titles of the 1,100-page law in one comprehensive package. This approach helps ensure that various parts of the law -- such as academic accountability, professional development, and programs for English language learners -- are in sync with each another.

Meanwhile, House Education and Workforce chair John Kline (R-Minn.) has indicated he wants to reauthorize ESEA in separate, more bite-size pieces. His approach would allow Congress to focus more carefully on each element of this highly technical and disparate law.

The House approach also could protect the legislation from becoming bogged down by multiple controversies, both within the committee and among the dozens of special interest groups that can oppose legislation over just one or two provisions. However, depending on how various pieces are grouped, legislating in segments can take much longer because those passed first must be revisited to accommodate the direction of those that are subsequently enacted.

Here are the principles that Congress must use as it reauthorizes the bill:

Involve local school boards and local educators in developing the legislation -- including providing input into the final compromises they reach. This latter step was not taken in the last reauthorization and contributed to the avoidable, costly, and counterproductive flaws of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

If NCLB’s accountability provisions can’t be addressed before the 2011-12 school year starts, enact legislation to defer the implementation of sanctions in the current bill. As the ever-growing percentage of students who must score “proficient” on state tests rises to 100 percent, schools should not have to spend more scarce dollars and staff time for programming built on a flawed accountability system.

Don’t micromanage schools, allow the U.S. Department of Education to do so, or adopt rigid one-size-fits-all approaches. The federal role can provide valuable leadership -- to strengthen aspects of the delivery system that focuses on raising student achievement -- but local schools and districts must have flexibility in pursuing improvements.

Align the federal accountability framework with programs that are adequately funded to help school districts reach new performance levels. This is especially critical because most states are adopting more rigorous standards and tests. Alignment includes support for professional development of teachers, curriculum development, acquiring course materials, and special programming -- like Title I -- for students requiring additional services.

Ensure that Congress can fund the new law at levels that match the expectations it outlines. Given the strained financial condition of schools and states over the next several years, this must be taken into account along with how federal funds are to be delivered to local districts. On the latter point, districts need the certainty and long-term sustainability of broad-based formula programs. Competitive grants to achieve high-leverage change have a place, but the Education Department’s move to increase those efforts at the expense of formula funding is way out of balance.

Recognize that districts are educating 50 million diverse “whole children,” each prepared for an information-driven world with the necessary knowledge, skills, values, and expectations. Whether it’s a federal accountability system for some subjects or program support for specific initiatives, the federal role needs to be incorporated into the broader mission of education. Federal programs should not place limits on this broader mission or cause artificial segmentation of local education programs so that narrow federal regulations can be met.

See the importance of education as a nationally recognized necessity for America’s future. As complicated and difficult as the reauthorization process may be, Congress must not give up. It cannot put off replacing the current law’s shortcomings with the more effective role that the federal level can play.

The responsibility for good legislation does not rest solely on Congress doing the right thing. School boards must work proactively with their lawmakers. Do your representatives know your district’s challenges, what works and what doesn’t in federal programs, as well as your district’s goals and plan to raise student achievement? If they don’t know what’s happening in your district, can you blame them for taking the wrong course of action?

Earlier this month, more than 800 school board members and state association leaders took these principles to Capitol Hill at NSBA’s Federal Relations Network Conference. As the legislation evolves, we can be successful if the number of school board advocates multiplies -- and includes your voice as well.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director for advocacy and issues management at the National School Boards Association. His column appears monthly in ASBJ.


Talk About It
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Florida schools use virtual learning for core classes
Some high school students in the Miami-Dade school district got a surprise when they showed up for classes this year: Their teacher had been replaced by a row of computers. The school district is using virtual classes in some subjects to dodge a class-size-reduction mandate that many Florida districts are finding they can no longer afford, according to the Miami Herald. Virtual classes, which have grown exponentially in the state, are exempt from the class-size requirement. The “e-learning labs” have a facilitator who observes the students and helps with technical problems. The classes are offered by the Florida Virtual School, which serves public as well as home-schooled students. The Herald reported that some Miami-Dade parents were not happy with the arrangement, but some researchers see virtual learning classrooms as a growing trend for schools. Several Florida districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward County, the state’s two largest school districts, faced fines of up to $10 million for violating the state’s class-size laws, which do not allow more than 25 students in core subject classes in high school and require fewer in lower grades. However, some of those districts were appealing the fines, the Herald reported in January.

Virtual field trips curb expenses
Classes in several New Jersey schools are finding ways to take field trips and communicate with peers by using technology. Several museums and art galleries host students virtually, using computers and videoconferencing software such as Skype, the Press of Atlantic City reported. Some classes also are using Skype to communicate with peers in other countries.

Ohio district spends $900,000 to fire teacher
The process of firing a teacher accused of burning crosses into a student’s arm and teaching creationism over the objections of his administrators recently cost a small Ohio school district about $900,000. The Mt. Vernon school district paid for an employment lawyer and related court costs, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The case was watched closely by advocates for the separation of church and state. Middle school teacher John Freshwater was accused of inappropriate religious activity in his classroom. Freshwater decorated his room with posters displaying the Ten Commandments and Bible verses, and diverted from the curriculum to discuss his ideas on creationism. A student -- who said the teacher used a low-voltage transformer to burn a cross into his arm -- sued Freshwater and the district in 2008. The Mt. Vernon school board voted to begin proceedings to terminate his employment that year, but kept Freshwater on the payroll.

Science fairs on the decline
While schools are being pressured to teach more science-related subjects, the time-honored science fair is not getting as much of a promotion. Fairs in several states and school districts were cancelled or scaled back due to budget cuts last year, the New York Times reported. Some corporate sponsors are cutting back on donations because of the economy, according to the Times, while some school districts have eliminated extracurricular activities, including science-related clubs. Some science fairs had decreased attendance because fewer students could afford to travel.

California schools expand clinics
Two of California’s largest school districts are using bond funds, private donations, and insurance reimbursements to expand the health clinics, that operate on school campuses. The Los Angeles and Oakland school districts are adding new clinics with the idea that healthier students will perform better in school. Students in Los Angeles have higher rates of asthma, obesity, and depression than the national average, according to California Watch. High school students are the least likely to have access to a clinic, according to the investigative news service. But school clinics have been found to reduce pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates, promote better eating habits, increase immunizations, and lower Medicaid costs, the report found. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to add 500 new health clinics at California’s elementary schools, but the plan never materialized.

Toyota donates new cars to schools
Toyota recently donated several new Camrys produced at the Georgetown, Ky., plant to area high schools for use in their auto technology classes. The schools received “trial vehicles,” which are built so that workers can practice new methods of manufacturing, but which are not able to be sold, according to the Frankfort State Journal. While many high schools have programs that allow local residents to donate their old vehicles to auto technology classes, it’s important for high school students to have newer-model cars to work on as well, instructors say. Electronic and computerized controls change frequently, but schools cannot afford new cars. David Carpenter, a spokesman for Toyota’s Georgetown plant, told the State Journal that Toyota donated 31 cars to high schools and specialty schools late last year.

N.J. governor calls for more autism schools
While many disability advocates have called for the inclusion of special-needs students in regular classes, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants his state to increase the number of schools for students with autism. The governor wants specialized schools to serve as “centers for excellence” in each county, according to the New York Times. Christie argued that more specialized schools could be more cost-effective and provide a better, more specialized education than a student’s regular school could. The number of New Jersey students classified as having autism has grown from 8,490 in 2006 to 13,358 in 2010, according to the Times, and the state has one of the highest autism rates in the country. Parents of children with autism appeared to be split over the proposal, the Times reported.

Bus cameras catch illegal turns
School districts in several states have installed video cameras on their school buses in hopes of catching drivers who speed or others who illegally pass buses that are loading or unloading. In Cobb County, Ga., officials installed cameras after a kindergartner was killed while stepping off a bus. In some areas, school officials work with police to ticket the vehicles caught on camera, USA Today reported. The biggest problem, school officials say, is that many states do not yet have laws allowing school officials to ticket violators.

More career readiness needed
Researchers at one of America’s most elite universities say that the nation’s middle and high schools have become too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach, and they need to give some students a better pathway to career training. Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Pathways Project say that multiple routes to college or careers are needed to lower the number of dropouts and help the U.S. better compete internationally. “Within the U.S. economy, there is also evidence of a growing ‘skills gap’ in which many young adults lack the skills and work ethic needed for many jobs that pay a middle-class wage,” the report says. The number of teens and young adults who have jobs is at the lowest level since World War II, the report says. 



Q&A with literacy advocate John Zickefoose

 

When John Zickefoose was 35, he did what any young father would do -- he sat down and read his two sons a children’s book. But as he struggled over the words, and his 7-year-old began to correct his mistakes, Zickefoose finally confronted a long-held secret: He was functionally illiterate.

With some trepidation, Zickefoose decided to take action. He signed up for an adult literacy program at his local library. He learned to read. He eventually got a job working in the library and became well-known in the community as an advocate for literacy. He formed UNITY (United Neighbors Involving Today’s Youth), a coalition of public and private agencies that has secured more than $17 million for the California’s Corona-Norco Unified School District.

He also became known as “Mr. Z,” the man who visits schools to read to students, talk about the importance of reading, and tell his story so that kids with reading problems understand that they’re not alone in the challenges they face.

Finally, last fall, Zickefoose, now 52, took on a new role in the battle against illiteracy. He won election to the Corona-Norco school board. Recently, he spoke with ASBJ Senior Editor Del Stover about his battle to gain literacy -- and how his life experience will influence his new leadership role.

When did you first realize you were having trouble reading? And how did you get through school?

It was actually very early. I had feelings of being different even in kindergarten. It really kicked in when I entered first grade and the learning process started to progress at a faster rate. I realized: This just isn’t working for me.

It was frustrating. Then I got mad. In about second grade, I will tell you -- and it’s something I’m not proud of, but in large part it was due to my defense mechanism -- I became the class clown and started acting out.

Unfortunately, by high school, I was far beyond the point of help. I had given up. I was done. I sat in a chair and tried some, but not much.

Did you get any special services? Did the school help?

I did get help. I was in special education. I was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [and he later learned he had dysgraphia, a difficulty in writing].

But there are a lot of differences between then and the way our system works now. They could diagnose me. But they were just beginning to understand how to work with my problems. They didn’t have the tools. They had some, but not the breadth that they have today.

How did you function as an adult unable to read well?

I was working for a company that did home restoration work. I drove a truck before that. I could read some -- enough that I could convince you that I actually was able to read.

What finally prompted you to enroll in a literacy program?

First, I injured my back -- severely -- and even the company doctor was saying, “You’ve got to stop working.” But I actually fought the company doctor. I said, “I’m OK.” I was fearful of being thrust into a position where I would have to somehow do more reading and writing.

The second piece of it was my two boys, Shawn [then 7] and Adam [4]. Shawn was in second grade, and like any good father, I’d sit with them, one on either side, and try to read a simple children’s book. But Shawn would fix the words I got wrong. You can imagine ... that didn’t go over too well.

My son wasn’t trying to show me up. He was emerging into his own literacy. But it had a pretty devastating effect on me. What I’d been able to hide pretty much my entire life -- it turned out my 7-year-old son pulled back the layers and discovered it. I was really pushed up against the wall.

What do you hope to achieve as a school board member? How will your life experiences influence your priorities as a board member?

The message I want to share is that every child really can succeed. Don’t let a child give up. We must continue to look for best practices, to continue to find the best way of doing things.

I don’t think I have any abilities that other board members don’t have. But I do have an understanding about what that feeling is when a child is sitting at a desk, and it’s just not working for him or her. I will tell you: That feeling is devastating.

There are a lot of times when someone looks at a child and says, “He or she doesn’t care. They don’t want to learn.” I would dispute that. I would say every child really wants to learn. I badly wanted to be able to do what every other child was doing in the classroom. But it didn’t work for me. It didn’t resonate. Thus I became the class clown, and it would appear to others that I didn’t care. But it mattered deeply, so I do think I have a bit of insight and, maybe, a bit more compassion.