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Georgia gets leeway for No Child rules
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Local educators say the new flexibility Georgia was granted in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act is a step in the right direction, but won’t do enough to distinguish between nearly adequate schools and grossly inadequate schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced Monday that Georgia is one of six states selected to pilot a "differentiated accountability" plan under the No Child Left Behind Act. Georgia was one of 17 states to apply for the flexibility plan before May 2.

Will Schofield, superintendent of the Hall County school system, said the terms in which the federal act marks schools’ progress are still too broad despite the new tiers defined in the new plan, which became effective immediately.

The differentiated accountability plan will create three tiers for schools and school systems as they work toward meeting annual standards of the federal act, rather than the stark "needs improvement" label versus the "met adequate yearly progress" label.

Now, schools in Georgia that have been labeled as needing improvement for three or four years will be divided into the top 20 percent, the middle 60 percent and the bottom 20 percent of needs-improvement designations. Each designation will have increasingly severe consequences such as appointing an outside expert to advise the school or to restructure or lengthen its school day.

Schools that have been in the needs-improvement category for five or more years, rather than seven years, will now be placed into a new category called "state-directed," which requires needs-improvement 5 schools to enter into an improvement contract with the state Department of Education and a state director will be assigned to the school full time to assist in its direction.

For a school to be defined as needing improvement, the school as a whole must fail to meet the standards of adequate yearly progress as defined by the federal act two years in a row. Multiple state test scores, including the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, combined with test participation rates largely determine whether a school or a school system meets AYP for the year.

For a school to dig its way out of needs-improvement status, it must meet AYP two years in a row.

Schofield said East Hall Middle is presently the only state-directed Hall County School.

He said the school system has entered into a contract with the state Department of Education, and is doing "an awful lot of assessment" and is "starting to see some tremendous results from that."

"It’s not rocket science," Schofield said. "Let’s find out what kids know, teach them what they’re missing, assess it often and make sure teachers have the tools that they need to make it happen."

He said he believes the act should also count every child’s test scores when determining a school’s adequate yearly progress, the tool No Child Left Behind uses to gauge annual academic progress in schools and school systems nationwide.

Schofield said under No Child Left Behind, subgroups are made up of students of a particular race or ethnicity defined under the act that do not total 40 or more students in a school. He said the scores of students in subgroups are not factored into AYP determinations.

"We ought to show what all of our students do regardless of whether there’s 40 in the subgroup or whether there’s 400 in the subgroup and communities ought to judge for themselves whether schools have made adequate yearly progress," he said. "What I’ve said all along is what we ought to do is post the data, let people see it, and let them judge for themselves. This putting on of labels based on the performance of one out of a thousand students is pretty silly ... and I think people are starting to see that.

"When one child can swing the entire label of a school of a thousand, something is wrong, and that’s what we have now," Schofield said. "I feel a whole lot better saying that because our schools did a whole lot better this year."

He said projections show that 28 out of 33 Hall County schools will make AYP this year. And Schofield said for the first time since No Child Left Behind was implemented in 2002, the Hall County school system will make AYP this year.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said he believes there are many flaws in the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I think what everybody will agree with, with No Child Left Behind, is that it’s a great idea, it sounds good, but unfortunately the original bill ... had some fundamental flaws — not fatal flaws," Hubbard said. "So what they’re finally doing now ... they’re realizing there are problems with English language learners and special needs children.

"One of the problems is not only have we been painting our children with one broad stroke of the paintbrush in regard to the one size fits all, but you’ve also been painting the schools," Hubbard said.

He said he hopes the new tiers will catalyze the appropriation of resources to the struggling schools that need it most.

"We’re glad very glad to see (this flexibility) coming here," Hubbard said. "I think these are finally some good steps in the right direction ... but we definitely have further to go. The flexibility is a way to start assisting schools in school systems that were close but not quite cutting the mustard, and then also addressing the needs for schools in systems that need intensive support."

Schofield said the most positive aspect of the new flexibility plan is that it will allow students to receive free tutoring through schools faster.

Under the state’s approved differentiated accountability plan, school systems will now have the option of offering free tutoring to all students at first-year needs-improvement schools and public school choice to students at second-year needs-improvement schools. Prior to the flexibility plan, No Child Left Behind mandated public school choice to be offered the first year after a school was labeled as needing improvement and free tutoring to be offered to only economically disadvantaged students if a school is labeled as needing improvement a second consecutive year.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, only 3 percent of students eligible for school choice in 2007 changed schools, while 13 percent of students eligible for free tutoring took advantage of the learning opportunity.

"What we find is that a lot more parents take advantage of tutoring services than they do of school choice," Schofield said. "So it this whole idea of choice appears to be much ado about nothing, whereas the tutorial services could be taken advantage of by numerous students immediately."

Schofield said it’s very expensive for the school system to offer free tutoring. He said the federal government appropriates funds to Title I districts like Hall County, where more than half of all students receive free or reduced lunches, but the funding is not purpose specific.

Hubbard said in many ways, No Child Left Behind is an unfunded federal mandate that requires local school systems to do the best they can with the funding they have.

"They provide us the exact same amount of Title I funding, and we’re just required to use some of that funding for tutoring, which means we have to cut something else out," Schofield said.

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