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Schools labeled as failing, but are they?
BY KATHERINE SMITH
Who's going to flinch first? The state and the U.S. Department of Education are playing a game of chicken that by design puts Washington state students in the middle.
A lack of action on Capitol Hill in D.C. related to updating the Education and Secondary Education Act — its most current iteration is known by the name "No Child Left Behind" — has trickled down to Washington's school districts, which were required to mail home letters that labeled schools as failing.
The label came from the U.S. Department of Education, which revoked Washington state's waiver from requirements in No Child Left Behind earlier this year, making Washington the first state in the country to lose its waiver.
One of the requirements in No Child Left Behind is that schools meet Annual Yearly Progress, or AYP, benchmarks. Among those benchmarks is by 2014 every student pass their state's standardized tests in reading and math. The ESEA has historically been updated regularly, but has been overdue for a revision for a number of years. That update would replace No Child Left Behind. As the date for refreshed legislation came and went with no action in Congress and the 2014 deadline for meeting AYP approached, the Department of Education granted states waivers on a yearly basis. For the past two years Washington had received such waivers.
This year, however, the state's waiver was denied because of a Department of Education requirement that students performance on standardized tests be a component in teacher evaluations. In Washington, including that component in evaluations would require a change in state law by the Legislature.
No change equaled no waiver.
Besides mailing home the letters, there are also federally imposed financial ramifications for districts.
Schools that receive Title 1 funds — e.g. schools that meet a threshold in the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch and receive federal funds for programs that help economically disadvantaged students in the classroom through additional programming — and are labeled as failing must set aside 20 percent of the Title 1 funds for either private tutors or to transport students to other schools. Additionally, after two years of not meeting AYP, schools enter a series of remedial steps as outlined in NCLB, which can conclude in the reorganization of a school.
Districts make a point of their own
Last month the superintendents of 28 school districts in the Puget Sound Educational Service District, which provides additional resources and support for school districts and includes Kent and Tahoma, signed a letter that went home to parents explaining the situation. The letter also took a stance against the "failing" label, calling it "repressive" and "punitive."
In addition, PSESD held a press conference last month with four of the superintendents and one of Kent's elementary principals to discuss the impact of schools being labeled as failing.
"It's clear, the evidence is overwhelming that schools are not failing," Kent School District Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas said at the press conference. "We want to be held accountable and now it's time to hold accountability accountable."
Vargas went on to call the law antiquated and said that it was in direct conflict with other laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"We do reject the narrative that our schools are failing," Vargas said. "That's contrary to the facts."
"In Olympia you had folks who just could not make a decision, and in DC you had people who decided to make a point," Kent School District Spokesman Christ Loftis said, summing up the situation.
In the Kent School District, 21 of the 41 schools receive Title 1 funds. None met the 100 percent AYP threshold.
"Because the standard for 2014 is perfection for all, the reality is that no school in our district, no school in the state, could meet that," Loftis said.
Loftis said that in Kent alone, $1.7 million in Title 1 dollars will have to be reallocated.
"It's affecting our ability to bring in curriculum resources and replace curriculum resources at our Title 1 schools," Loftis said. "It's real."
Loftis said that the list of programs and services that will be affected includes early learning and preschool programs in the Kent valley, staffing and staff training at schools in Covington, replacing dated curriculum at low income schools across the district, and individual approaches to identifying students' needs and addressing them.
"Title (1) funds allow us to do that more tailored approach in our poorer incomes and low income areas," Loftis said. "It's going to impact our ability to offer that tailored and tiered system."
Kent will use some reserves to reduce cuts, but because the dollar figure is so large Loftis said that the district couldn't do a complete match of funds. Loftis also pointed out that not only is there a cost of reallocating funds, but there is the cost of putting the word out the to tens of thousands of households in the district.
Loftis said rather than helping kids, the cost of implementing the federal government's policies are taking away from students in classrooms.
"And then go to the $1.7 million we were going to spend on kids that now we aren't going to ...it's nonsensical," Loftis said
In the Tahoma School District, two schools — Rock Creek Elementary and Lake Wilderness Elementary — are Title 1 schools. None of the Tahoma schools met the 100 percent AYP benchmark.
"The fact that we've been able to get 92 percent meeting math and 96 percent meeting reading (at Tahoma High School) is pretty remarkable," Tahoma spokesman Kevin Patterson said. "We keep working on it, that's what we do. But will we ever reach 100 percent? It's unlikely."
This year Tahoma will receive $349,353 in Title 1 funding, and about $70,000 of that will have to be reallocated for transportation or tutoring.
Patterson said the district has been told the funds for tutoring will be reserved for students who meet certain guidelines.
"It's based on family income, so low income gets priority and they have to be performing below the standard," Patterson said.
Patterson also said that, for this year anyway, the district will most likely use reserves to make up the funding difference so that no programs or services have to be cut.
"It means maybe some other things somewhere else in the system don't get funded or you don't have quite as much in reserves," Patterson said. "But the idea is you don't cut services to kids who need them the most."
Tahoma sent out a press release, in addition to the letter from the PSESD, explaining their stance to parents and guardians.
"We are spending hours and hours of time and energy on what is now a negative process because federal and state lawmakers can't agree on a solution," Tahoma Superintendent Rob Morrow said in the release. "No Child Left Behind served a noble purpose by setting a high standard. Great progress has been made. But changes are necessary so that we continue to help students succeed and not divert time and energy toward unrealistic goals."
Helping or hurting students?
One of the ironies of the battle between the state and the Department of Education, and the failing schools label, is that many of the schools now deemed failing have won many awards for excellence in a variety of categories.
As an example, Vargas said at last month's press conference that in the last four years alone Kent schools have won more than 50 awards from the state and federal government recognizing excellence.
"Bottom line, it's going to hurt poor kids," Loftis said. "And what a silly thing."
The idea behind the law, that if students aren't getting the help they need at school to give them other options, doesn't take into consideration variables such as English as a second language, or students with special needs. That, school officials say, means the law misses the point, and isn't effective.
"That's the irony of this: you're taking money away from kids who need it the most and reallocate it," Patterson said. "You're not solving problems, you're creating new problems."
Teachers union supports state's decision
As for student's performance on state tests being a part of teacher evaluations, Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association said that the organization supported the state's move to not change the law.
"There's no research that indicates linking student test scores to teacher evaluations does anything to help students or their teachers," Wood said.
He then pointed to the state's new teacher evaluation system, the Teacher and Principal Education Project, that was piloted last year and continues to be rolled out this year.
"Teachers and school administrators across Washington state are working very hard to implement the new evaluation system in a way that helps students but also teachers as well," Wood said. "There's a lot of great work that is being done."
Officials weigh in
State Rep. Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from the 47th district and majority leader, called NCLB "flawed."
"We have an accountability system here in the state of Washington that is incredibly well done...That should be the measure that we use," Sullivan said.
He added that the state tests for students — which are currently moving to the Smarter Balanced assessments that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards — are cumulative and wouldn't be an effective measure of teachers.
"It measures if students get past a certain level, it doesn't measure student growth," Sullivan said of the tests. "There was a lot of concern that we would be tying teacher evaluations to something that didn't serve that purpose."
It's a sentiment that Sullivan said he shares.
"I don't believe that that assessment is a good tool for what the federal government wants us to use it for," Sullivan said. "My hope is that Congress will get serious and actually take this issue on. That the NCLB accountability will be changed to a system that makes sense."
Washington state Congressman Dave Reichert was unavailable to answer questions, but in an emailed statement he said that "the law is broken and clearly needs to be fixed."
"However, I do not support a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to education reform and believe that parents, teachers, communities, and the state and local school districts know what works best for their students.
The Department of Education and the White House did not return calls for comment for this article.
Going forward, there are three main options that could come to fruition. In no particular order: the state Legislature could opt to change state law and make student performance on standardized tests – that is, on the Smarter Balanced tests — a part of teacher evaluations, which would most likely result in restoration of the state's waiver. Or, the Department of Education could decide to relent and extend a waiver to the state despite not including test data in teacher evaluations. The third option is that Congress enacts an update to ESEA, thereby replacing the requirements for every student to pass state tests — once again, the Smarter Balanced tests — in No Child Left Behind with new standards.
Loftis pointed to graduation rates as one way the district measures success. Kent's percentage, he said, is up to the high 80s.
Patterson said that Tahoma looks to graduation rates and test scores but also to the whole student.
"It's not just an arbitrary set of test scores or rules that guide us," Patterson said. "It's also teachers being professionals and administrators doing their job and monitoring them as they go through the system."
The problem with perfection, Loftis said, is that it can very rarely be reached.
"Using Utopia as your standard means that failure is always going to be your circumstance," he said. "And people can't survive in a failing circumstance forever."
Until circumstances change, and despite the negativity, school officials say they will keep educating kids; after all, they say, their schools, teachers, and their students are anything but failures.
"We've got to worry about the futures of all not the ego of a few," Loftis said.