Beyond the political rhetoric and the barrage of statistics, stories are starting to emerge about how the No Child Left Behind law, still in its infancy, is affecting individual schools, students, principals and teachers.
Some teachers and principals from across the country say the NCLB provisions are helpful tools they can use to improve student performance and empower teachers. Others complain implementation of the reforms has turned teachers into test-coaches and squelched classroom creativity.
Schools failing to meet AYP
San Diego Unified School District spokesman Steven Baratte said implementing NCLB provisions has had huge ramifications throughout the district's schools. Under the law, schools that do not make their annual achievement goals called Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, four years in a row must take "serious corrective action." This can include staff replacement, a new curriculum and school restructuring.
upsets funding and staffing for the district," he said. "Given
the costs of NCLB penalties, like paying for students to be transported
to other schools and the disruption some of these schools experience,
the enrollment office takes a hit as do voluntary programs."
Barette says as the school district informs parents and students of their options, NCLB's effects will be felt on a larger scale.
"Right now, some students are leaving, but it's not a massive flight," he said. "Parents are concerned, and people enjoy having their children at a neighborhood school because it's easier to be involved. Many failing schools are in the inner city, and this makes it hard for parents to visit if their children move to another school."
Two failing San Diego schools are taking NCLB's mandatory corrective action as an opportunity to implement changes that may not have been an option without the penalties.
Gompers Secondary and Mann Middle schools are reorganizing into a charter school and a smaller school, respectively, plans that NCLB has accelerated, according to Barette.
Mann Principal Valerie Voss said she is optimistic about her school's reorganization plan, which will divide students into three smaller sub-schools. Mann's current student-to-teacher ratio is 26:1. After reorganization, students will meet with a class adviser in groups of 17 four times a week. The program is designed to give students a more intimate classroom environment, provide more hands-on learning opportunities and have teachers mentor students during their three years at the school.
"We were told to dream a dream, what would be the ultimate for our students," she said. "We felt our students needed more personalization. We're a school of 1,300 kids, and we felt if we could make a smaller environment for kids and really get to know them, they would be more successful. We're on our way."
Jacqueline Nevels, principal of Gompers Secondary Elementary, said any chance to improve schools is worth the effort. In the fall of 2005, Gompers will reopen as a charter school in order to comply with NCLB regulations.
"I'm not aware of another school district that has embraced NCLB as much as this one," she said. "It has really focused us on all kids; whether in resources, parent involvement, or funding. No Child Left Behind is ensuring the equitable distribution of resources."
Schools flourishing under NCLB
For some schools that meet No Child Left Behind requirements, the law's provisions and testing materials are proving helpful tools to improve student performance and empower teachers.
Brittingham, principal of Frankford Elementary School in Frankford,
Del. said she sees NCLB's major contribution to the area and her
school as an added guarantee of success.
"The state of Delaware was in a continuous mode of improvement before No Child Left Behind," she said. "With the law, it just meant there was another layer to make sure we closed the achievement gap."
Frankford Elementary teachers and administrators used NCLB's focus on individuals to tailor their educational plans from looking just at the big picture to emphasizing individual students.
"We created a promotion and review system; the teacher and principal meet quarterly to discuss each child in every class -- that's key with No Child Left Behind, every child has to be accounted for," she said. "We knew we had to make sure each child had an individual plan, so we got into battle mode to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses."
Aside from changing the specifics of teaching strategies, Brittingham says NCLB-inspired changes at Frankford are both strategic and philosophical.
"I think what's happened in my school is that as a teacher you can always say, 'I can teach most kids, most of the time,'" she said, "but with this piece of legislation, this makes us differentiate instruction to make each child successful. The goals are somewhat rigid, so each teacher is constantly looking to improve teaching strategies. Now the expectations are higher, and people are meeting them."
But not all teachers at flourishing schools have found the NCLB provisions to be helpful. GraceAnn MacDonald, a sixth-grade history teacher at Parkway Middle School in St. Louis, sees the program as an unnecessary intrusion into her school's already proven academic record.
"Teachers know about [NCLB] because it affects us everyday, it's a big wet blanket thrown over us," she said.
MacDonald, who believes that opposition to the law is growing and may eventually completely derail NCLB, derides the effort, saying it does little to actually improve the quality of education children receive.
"Really and truly, if you put a good teacher in a classroom, they don't even need a book. All [No Child Left Behind] really does it take away a good two weeks from teaching," she said.
Some teachers see the law in harsher terms. "Out went discovery learning, out went project based learning, out went open-ended problem solving. In came multiple choice warm-ups, quarterly 'chunking' tests, and 15 days of test practice. I was no longer a teacher; I was a test-prep coach," said Kathleen Smith, a veteran teacher from Illinois, who quit teaching last year.
"After 32 years I have seen a lot come and go in education, but I never thought it would get so bad that I would be driven out of a job I dearly love," she said.
Because of AYP requirements, the status of flourishing and failing schools can change from year to year. For some, the next years will be a proving ground for maintaining high test scores and student achievement, for others the opportunity to reinvent themselves to better suit student needs. And in 2006 and 2008, major deadlines for No Child Left Behind's measured improvements will arrive.