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Education Secretary gets earful from public school advocates

Arne Duncan faces off with union members who knock No Child Left Behind and charter schools
by: Rob Cullivan U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke to hundreds of Oregon teachers union members at H.B. Lee Middle School the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 12.

It's time to leave behind No Child Left Behind.

That was just one message Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, got at a town hall meeting with members of the Oregon Education Association the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 12, at H.B. Lee Middle School, 1121 N.E. 172nd Ave.

Duncan also heard criticism of President Obama's support for public charter schools, which one critic claimed takes away tax dollars needed for traditional neighborhood public schools. Another critic knocked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for taking tax dollars away from education and other services.

For his part, Duncan, a former superintendent of Chicago schools, defended charter schools, noting they have given poor and minority students in certain communities a chance at a better education. He added that the Obama administration has increased Pell grants for college students and has made funding of early childhood education a priority.

No Child Left Behind

In September, Obama announced states would have increased flexibility under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly known as No Child Left Behind.

Under the new plan, states may request flexibility from specific mandates but will be expected to maintain a 'strong commitment to accountability and high standards for all students,' according to the Oregon Department of Education.

'We just want to give folks a lot more room to move,' Duncan told the H.B. Lee audience. 'What we really want to do is empower educators at the local level.'

He added that the federal government would start granting states waivers from the No Child Left Behind mandates by this winter.

Critics of the law claim it sets almost impossible-to-meet standards. For example, under No Child Left Behind, a school was said to have 'not met' federal standards if it fell short in only one category; for example, services for children who don't speak English.

While Duncan noted how the Obama administration is amending the law to make it more flexible, he nonetheless defended the concept of holding schools to high standards behind the law.

'I've never met a teacher or principal who was afraid of accountability,' he said.

Teacher's lament

Joyce Rosenau is president of the Reynolds Education Association, which represents teachers in the Reynolds School District. She bemoaned the impact of No Child Left Behind on classrooms and wants Obama to ditch it.

'When I started with the district in 1996, my principal encouraged me to not start teaching core curriculum for the first month or longer,' she told Duncan. 'During that time I was to build community with the students. We were to build relationships with each other.'

Things have changed for the worse, she said.

'This year I gave three standardized tests to my students within the first month of school,' she said. 'I need to know actually where they are on the track to passing a test in April … Our day is so closely regulated that we know the minutes students need to be seated at their desks.

'Last year a teacher I know was running reading groups by having students choose their own books and then meet and discuss those books with him independently,' she said. 'Some of those students did not pass the first trial of (a state standardized) test. So those students had to do test prep work instead of their reading groups. After several weeks of this, the students started to groan and said they now hated reading.'

The emphasis on standardized testing fostered by No Child Left Behind has demoralized schools, she said.

'Schools are punished for not having every child at benchmark when they should be celebrated for the gains and successes of all students,' she said, adding: 'I would ask you, Mr. Duncan, to remove your business model from education and remember that we are working with children not interchangeable parts.'

In a follow-up interview, Rosenau said she'd prefer to see the federal government measure schools' performance by a 'growth model.'

In other words, schools would be considered successful if their students could demonstrate they learned a subject not just through standardized testing but by other means as well, for example, multimedia projects or writing essays.