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Education reform: Rural districts fear effects of 'No Child Left Behind'

MARION, N.D. -- Science teacher Jean Legge has won a slew of professional awards and the respect of her colleagues. But in three years her job might be at risk, the career she loves possibly damaged by a controversial federal act. "I'm concerned ...

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MARION, N.D. -- Science teacher Jean Legge has won a slew of professional awards and the respect of her colleagues.

But in three years her job might be at risk, the career she loves possibly damaged by a controversial federal act.

"I'm concerned about this. A lot of teachers are," said Legge, who teaches junior high and high school students in the Litchville-Marion School District.

She's referring to legislation, commonly called No Child Left Behind, that seeks to improve American classrooms through annual testing of students and new requirements for teachers.

School districts across North Dakota worry the legislation isn't realistic and wonder how they'll be affected.

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"Everyone has concerns," said Pam Cronin, principal of Larimore (N.D.) High School. "Both big schools and smaller ones."

But the act presents special challenges for the small, rural districts so common in North Dakota.

About half of the state's 220 school districts have less than 200 students. And about a third of the districts have less than 100 students, according to information from the state Department of Public Instruction.

The Litchville-Marion district, southwest of Valley City, has about 20 teachers and 200 students.

Jim Gross, its superintendent, said he agrees with the intent of No Child Left Behind.

"It's not that we think we can't do better for our students. We can," he said. "But I'm not sure this is the way to do it."

No Child Left Behind demands 100 percent high school graduation and stringent annual testing of public school students, with "adequate" annual improvement in test results expected.

It also demands every classroom teacher be "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

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The designation apparently will require teachers to have a major or special credentials in each subject they teach.

Districts that fail to comply with No Child Left Behind risk losing federal funding.

Rural worries

Here's why the smaller districts worry they'll be hurt by No Child Left Behind:

E Small class sizes can cause fluctuations in annual test results. That could mean rural districts fail to show the adequate yearly progress required.

E Small-staffed rural districts often require instructors to teach classes outside their major. It's uncertain how these teachers will fit into No Child Left Behind.

Legge is one of the multi-subject teachers.

She teaches life science to seventh-graders, earth science to eighth-graders, physical science to ninth- graders, biology to 10th-graders, and environmental science and advanced biology to juniors and seniors.

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She wondered if her biology major and earth/environmental science minor will qualify her for all those classes.

"I don't know. There's just no way to tell right now," she said.

Bigger districts also have questions about the "highly qualified'' stipulation. But it's less of a concern for them because they usually have the staff and flexibility to allow at least some teachers to specialize in their majors.

For instance, biology major Joan Baltezore teaches biology and advanced biology at West Fargo High School.

"I've been fortunate that I've been able to specialize," she said.

Science teachers in bigger districts such as West Fargo occasionally teach classes outside their majors, Baltezore said.

"But it's much less common here" than in smaller districts, she said.

Tomorrow's teachers

The "highly qualified'' teacher stipulation worries rural districts for another reason, too.

These districts -- many of which are losing population, struggling economically and have relatively few young adults -- already find it difficult to attract new teachers.

To be sure, some teachers prefer rural schools, Gross said.

But many other teachers look elsewhere for employment.

"We realize rural communities don't have as many opportunities (for teachers and their families) as bigger districts," he said.

And rural districts, as a group, soon will need a major infusion of new teachers -- a generational changing of the guard.

Rural districts now rely heavily on teachers in their late 40s and 50s, Gross and others say.

Most of these teachers will retire over the next five to 10 years and replacements will be needed.

"Where will our new teachers come from?" Gross asked.

The need will be accelerated if veteran teachers decide to retire early to avoid getting entangled with the highly qualified stipulation.

"A lot of experienced teachers are thinking about getting out rather than having to deal with it," said Litchville-Marion teacher Dave Handt, who has taught math and other subjects for 22 years.

Testing troubles

Districts of all sizes question the student testing system, in which the math and reading skills of fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders are tested annually. Critics say it would be wiser to test the same students rather than a fresh batch of students every year.

But rural districts are especially critical of the testing system. They said it doesn't take into account their small classes.

"With small classes you can get big differences (in academic achievement ) from one year to the next," Gross said.

Litchville-Marion has 10 fourth-graders and 13 third-graders.

Such small classes' test results can vary widely if either class has even one gifted or special-needs student, said Faye Bubach, principal of Litchville-Marion Elementary School.

That's not the case in bigger districts because of their larger classes, she said.

West Fargo, for instance, has about 400 students in both third and fourth grades.

Bubach has another concern about how the testing system will affect rural schools.

In some cases, "There's no anonymity," she said.

Say a rural school fails to make adequate yearly progress -- but only because the scores of one special-needs student causes a school's test results to decline.

Though the scores of that individual student wouldn't be released, almost everyone in the local community would know why test results declined, Bubach said.

"And that just wouldn't be fair to students and their families," she said.

Litchville-Marion students' test scores are above both the state and national average, Gross and Bubach said.

But given the inherent shortcomings of the testing system, Gross said, the district someday may have difficulties through no fault of its own.

"The way this is set up, there could be problems," he said.

Possible solutions

Every state has the authority to fine-tune No Child Left Behind.

The North Dakota Senate earlier this month took a step toward doing so by approving new requirements for public school teachers.

The bill, which still must be approved by the state House, wouldn't change the requirements for current elementary teachers.

New teachers would need a major in the subject they teach and also to complete a test.

Current teachers in junior highs and high schools would need a major or its equivalent if they teach a core course such as math or English.

But even though some issues are being resolved, important details -- such as how teachers without a major in a subject will prove they're highly qualified to teach it -- are still undetermined.

The North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board is working to determine exactly how state teachers will prove their abilities.

It's not an easy task, said Laura Carley, a Fargo School Board member who serves on the state board.

"I think we've spent at least 50 hours on it," with more work ahead, she said.

Though specifics haven't been worked out, plans call for allowing teachers to teach a non-major subject by passing a test or otherwise demonstrating proficiency in the subject, she said.

"There will be more hoops for our teachers to jump through," Carley said. "But it (No Child Left Behind) is the law."

North Dakota teachers, as a group, will easily prove their qualifications, she said.

Gloria Lokken, president of the North Dakota Education Association in Bismarck, also is confident teachers statewide will pass muster.

"We already have highly qualified teachers in North Dakota," she said.

State officials also have worked hard to come up with a testing system that's fair to rural schools, said Greg Gallagher, director of school improvement for DPI.

The state has developed a complicated but reliable formula that makes allowances for small classes in rural schools, he said.

Under the formula, a rural school won't be identified as deficient unless it falls badly short.

He offered this analogy: A police officer usually doesn't cite a motorist driving 71 mph or 72 mph in a 70 mph zone, but will cite a motorist driving, say, 76 mph or 77 mph.

And to preserve student anonymity, he said, the test results of any class with fewer than 10 students won't be publicized.

No perfect solution exits, but officials are doing their best, Gallagher said.

"There's an inherent tension between the needs of school districts and the needs of students," he said. "We try to come up with a balance."

Lokken said she's concerned about No Child Left Behind, but is optimistic solutions can be found.

She noted U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige recently appointed a task force to address the concerns that rural schools have about No Child Left Behind.

The road ahead

Gross said patience and cooperation will be critical as No Child Left Behind is implemented over the next few years.

"It's going to take all of us working together," he said.

Legge, for her part, just wants to do her job. She came late to the profession, raising her children before becoming a teacher, and wants to continue teaching for many years.

Whether that will be feasible under No Child Left Behind remains to be seen.

"I love teaching," she said. "I just hope this won't get in the way."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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