Columbia stakeholders react to Obama's proposal for No Child reform

Friday, September 23, 2011 | 6:47 p.m. CDT; updated 5:03 p.m. CDT, Saturday, September 24, 2011

COLUMBIA — The devil is in the details for Missouri School Boards Association spokesman Brent Ghan when it comes to a reform proposed Friday for the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Together with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama said states can use a waiver to circumvent certain aspects of the No Child act by proposing their own achievement accountability plans.

Obama proposed states should have the flexibility to focus more on growth in the classroom and worry less about teaching to standardized tests. 

"Starting today, we'll be giving states more flexibility to meet high standards," Obama said in an address from the White House. "This does not mean that states will be able to lower their standards or escape accountability. In fact, the way we’ve structured this is if states want more flexibility, they're going to have to set higher standards, more honest standards that prove they're serious about meeting them."

Ghan said he thinks the move has the potential to be a positive step for local school districts, but he is concerned it is substituting one set of federal requirements for another.

Ghan said the school boards association will evaluate the plan to see whether it might work for Missouri.

Passed during President George W. Bush's first administration in 2001, the No Child act aims to increase proficiency in American classrooms by improving classroom performance and improving the quality of teachers.

Under the law, all schools must operate at 100 percent proficiency by 2014, a caveat that many education stakeholders think is unfair and unrealistic. 

Michelle Baumstark, spokeswoman for Columbia Public Schools, said the district has been advocating a growth model system.

Right now, Missouri public schools use the Missouri Assessment Program and end-of-course exams to be evaluated under the No Child act. But last year, the district participated in a pilot program, with the help of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, that allowed it to test out the growth model system, Baumstark said. 

"Proficiency has been defined by someone in a room somewhere that doesn't know these individual children," she said. "(With the growth model system), you're measuring that child against his or herself rather than a target set arbitrarily by someone who doesn't know that child."

By testing students both at the beginning and end of the school year, the assessment provided teachers with valuable information to better meet the needs of their students, Baumstark said.

Until the state decides whether to apply for a waiver of the No Child requirements, Baumstark said, Missouri schools are pigeon-holed.

"I think they have to weigh what would be best for schools in Missouri," she said. "Having waivers would be great, but they have to make determinations for whether it would be in the best interest of all school districts in the state of Missouri to apply."

In a press release on the state Education Department's website, Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said they are pleased to be able to consider such a waiver, but it is too early to say whether Missouri will apply.

"We will remain absolutely committed to accountability, but we believe the outdated NCLB accountability system is broken,” she said. “The need to fix it is urgent.”

Jan Mees, a member and former president of the Columbia School Board, said she is in favor of the waiver if it can relieve some of the stress of a one-picture snapshot of a child's or school district's achievement.

Mees said that the proposed plan is a step toward the goal of maximizing student achievement but that reform must be taken further.

"You could consider this a beta test, we're taking a look at how things are progressing," she said. "I think it’s imminent they actually repeal the majority of the law that makes us all want to be perfect by 2014.

"One hundred percent perfection by 2014 is not an achievable goal," Mees continued. "This might be temporary, but I hope what comes from it is a better look at how our kids are doing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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