Guest Column

Tilting at Lake Wobegon

“This will be worse than the windmills.” — Sancho, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote by Michael F. Rice

You’re probably familiar with Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, the place “where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average.” Little did most educators realize they would one day live with Lake Wobegon expectations in the form of No Child Left Behind, which expects all children to be proficient by the 2013-14 school year.

As superintendent of one of New Jersey’s most linguistically diverse districts with 10,500 students speaking 68 different languages at home, I am well aware of the importance of high expectations. In the last two years, our state test scores have risen at all levels, in all subject areas, for virtually all categories of students.

At the same time, however, as a veteran educator who has worked in urban and suburban districts across the country, I also recognize the importance of realistic expectations for student improvement. In its present form, NCLB is unrealistic to the point of unreasonableness.

Peculiar Definition
Consider the following:

• A score of 39 of 40 constitutes failure.

In any other industry, success in 39 of 40 categories, a 97.5 percent success rate, is something to be lauded. Under NCLB, a school’s success in 39 of 40 categories or student subgroupings represents failure to meet adequate yearly progress and generates an early warning or the beginning of sanctions.

My example isn’t far-fetched. One of our middle schools achieves well above the norm for schools that educate the socioeconomic, ethnic and linguistic diversity that it does. Indeed, schools in other districts have reached out to our middle school for advice on how to improve their own instructional programs. This middle school achieved adequate yearly progress in 39 of 40 categories, with only the math rate among special-needs students falling below the benchmark. The result: The school received a so-called early warning.

In a state whose scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are among the highest in the nation, New Jersey had 75 percent of its high schools on the NCLB early warning list a year ago, including a number of award-winning schools.

• Diverse schools bear a greater burden.

NCLB requires states to set a sample size at or above which the given category counts for AYP purposes. In New Jersey, the sample is 20 students. In other words, if a school has 20 of any type of student except special education (white, Hispanic, African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, LEP, economically disadvantaged, or general education), it must achieve AYP in this category, regardless of how many students are in the school. (Last year, the special education sample size was 35.)

Consider an elementary school with 20 white students in 4 th grade. In New Jersey, the state benchmark for language arts is 75 percent. Therefore, 15 students scoring at or above proficiency would achieve AYP for the school while one fewer (70 percent) would not. It’s hard to understand the logic of one child’s success being the difference between adequate progress and an early warning.

• On test days, children with limited English proficiency are expected to redefine themselves as proficient in English.

All year, federal law requires us to educate children with limited English differently on their path to attaining state core curriculum standards. On test days, however, NCLB expects LEP children, with few exceptions, to perform at the same level as general education children. If they don’t, their school fails to achieve AYP and begins its movement on the path toward NCLB sanctions.

NCLB permits the exclusion of the test scores of LEP children who have been in the country for less than one year. Yet children who have been in our schools from one to three years—and are still in English as a Second Language classes while learning enough English to compete in other classes—have their state test scores counted.

Under last year’s regulation modifications, students who no longer receive ESL services still may be included in the LEP category for NCLB calculation purposes for two additional years. While this is an improvement, the category is nonetheless always populated by a substantial percentage of students who, at that moment in their lives, are not likely, in significant numbers, to pass a test administered in English. That being the case, it begs the question why these students, at this point in their academic careers, ought to be expected to achieve at the same level as general education students, or why this should be an NCLB category at all.

In Clifton, more than 6,000 students speak a language other than English at home and more than 700 are enrolled in ESL classes. With the dedication of a fine staff, our ESL students achieve mastery of English and leave the ESL program in 2-3 years, approximately a year faster than our state average. How about that for adequate yearly progress?

• On test days, many children with special needs are implicitly expected to redefine themselves as without those special needs.

All year, federal law requires school districts to educate children with special needs according to their individual education plans. On test days, however, NCLB expects students with disabilities, with few exceptions, to perform at the same level as children in the general population. If they do not, their school fails to meet AYP and starts down the path toward NCLB sanctions.

Regardless of the number and percentage of students with substantial learning difficulties in a school district, only 1 percent of a district’s students may take an alternate assessment and be counted as proficient or advanced proficient in determining a school’s adequate yearly progress, based on last year’s regulation change. This year’s additional 2 percent flexibility, for those states able to take advantage of it, will be helpful, but it ignores the fact that a variable percentage of special needs students across schools may validly require an alternate assessment. In this case, why should all other students’ scores on alternate assessments above some arbitrarily determined fixed percentage be counted as non-proficient, regardless of what they truly were?

• To be a highly qualified teacher may not mean that you are highly qualified where it counts … in the classroom.

Lake Wobegon extends to teachers as well. The designation of a highly qualified teacher, or HQT, is an awkward vehicle for improving instruction.

Simply accumulating formal credentials does not make a teacher strong in the classroom. Address the fact that many legally defined HQTs may not be effective instructors, while many of those without the HQT designation may indeed be strong in the classroom. Ultimately, HQT status is not the important element. Quality instruction is, and using HQT as a proxy for quality instruction is dubious at best.

Fanciful Pursuit
Every day, my fellow educators and I make important contributions to all students’ lives with our high standards, long hours and commitment to excellence. I just don’t believe in the many Lake Wobegon aspects of NCLB. This doesn’t make me an apologist for mediocrity. It simply means that I recognize a fictitious place when I hear about it.

Michael Rice is superintendent of the Clifton Public Schools, 745 Clifton Ave., Clifton, NJ 07013. E-mail: mfrice@cliftonschools.org