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Other views: No Child Left Behind act a challenge for schools

A professional education journal, the Phi Delta Kappan, along with polling powerhouse Gallup, has conducted an annual "Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." As in the past, the 35th annual poll (Sept. 2003) asks respondents t...

A professional education journal, the Phi Delta Kappan, along with polling powerhouse Gallup, has conducted an annual "Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." As in the past, the 35th annual poll (Sept. 2003) asks respondents their perceptions of schools. This year there are also questions regarding the federal No Child Left Behind act. This is the new federal legislation requiring that every school in the nation launch efforts to improve student achievement.

The 2003 poll reflects continuation of a paradoxical pattern. The poll asks respondents to grade the nation's public schools, as well as their local schools, and the specific school their oldest child attends. In 2003, only 26 percent of all respondents gave the nation's public schools a grade of A or B. When asked what grade their community's schools should receive, 48 percent would give a grade of A or B. Finally, when asked to grade the specific school their oldest child attends, 68 percent would give a grade of A or B. This gap, between 26 percent for the nation's schools and 68 percent for the school the respondent knows "up close and personal" represents an important lesson as we struggle to abide by the new NCLB legislation.

Fargo Public Schools conducted a similar poll locally (August 2003) and learned that almost the exact percentage (67.7 percent) of Fargo residents perceive the overall quality of the Fargo School District as "excellent" or "very good." Only 3.9 percent rated the local schools as poor or very poor. Yet NCLB is designed to address the general national perceptions of our schools, which is obviously a much dimmer view than our local patrons would take.

With its visionary strategic plan, our local board of education was already in the standards and accountability business before NCLB was passed. The board is committed to monitoring results dictated in the plan, and is committed to improvements including the following areas:

E Our graduation rates must improve.

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E All students must meet higher standards in a rigorous curriculum.

E All students must be readers by grade three.

E All students must become better communicators -- writers, speakers.

E All students must acquire "soft skills" not easily measured with paper-pencil tests: self-reliance; life skills including career exploration, nutrition, wellness and avoidance of high-risk behaviors; citizenship; character; community service.

E All students must experience the arts.

Our own polls reflect support, which I echo, for the basic principles embodied in the new federal law. (All children can learn; public schools can and must improve service to traditionally under-served children; schools must be accountable to the communities they serve.) I believe that "the devil is in the details."

What the public, and perhaps even the legislators who drafted the law, do not understand thoroughly is how the law will measure performance and improvement based upon a very flawed system of measurement.

When our local schools begin to be labeled as failures, in spite of the high local public opinion of their performance, then the flaws in this new legislation will be obvious. In the interim, we must abide by the law, but fight to maintain local control over the improvement targets and the means to reach those targets. Otherwise we will experience a narrowing of the curriculum dictated by a series of high-stakes paper-pencil tests.

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In the Phi Delta Kappan poll, 66 percent of respondents believe that a single test cannot provide a fair picture of whether a school is in need of improvement. They are right. Yet this is the accountability model dictated by NCLB.

Continue to support your fine local school district. Invest your trust and faith in your school board's ability to identify problems and improve. If some of our schools are labeled "in need of improvement," under the federal legislation, know that the board in Fargo Public Schools has already declared all of our schools in need of improvement.

That is our business -- improving services for children. Every school in the district already is required to have a school improvement plan, and must report results. We have very good schools, on the way to becoming excellent. This is a reflection of the support the community has provided. We ask that this support continue as we navigate the uncertain waters of NCLB.

Flowers, Ph.D., is superintendent of Fargo Public Schools. You can respond to this commentary at floweda@fargo.k12.nd.us

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