Many children still left behind
San Francisco Chronicle

Sept. 27, 2006


SECRETARY of Education Margaret Spellings didn't quite declare "mission accomplished" in her glowing appraisal of the successes of the federal No Child Left Behind law in Tuesday's Open Forum. But she did suggest the nation is well on the road toward victory in the classroom.
"High standards plus accountability plus resources equals results," she wrote. She dinged unspecified "editorial writers" for suggesting that the law "sets the bar too high," noting that test scores in California schools have "shot up" by 8 percentage points in just two years. She specifically praised San Francisco schools. "In San Francisco, nearly half the students scored at grade level in reading and math, compared to 40 percent in 2003," wrote Spellings, a key author of the NCLB legislation.
The problem with these optimistic assessments is that they overstate the accomplishments being attributed to the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law.
Spellings neglected to mention that the San Francisco Unified School District is being punished by the federal government for failing to make "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the No Child Left Behind law.
San Francisco hasn't only failed this year -- it has failed for three years in a row.
The reason is that African American students, along with special education students, have failed to meet proficiency "targets" specified by the federal law.
At least 23 percent of each subgroup in the district is expected by the federal government to be "proficient" (defined as performing at grade level) on state tests in reading and 23.7 percent in math.
Only a third of Latino students met the proficiency goals. Even more distressing, just 22.7 percent of all black students, who make up 13 percent of the district's enrollment, scored at a proficient level in reading, and 21.2 percent did so in math.
Even though black students missed federal targets by a small margin, San Francisco has for the first time been designated a district in need of "program improvement."
Along with 166 other "program improvement" districts, San Francisco is now having to comply with a number of federal sanctions. These included having to advise all parents that they can transfer their children from "program improvement" schools to higher-performing ones. Ten percent of all federal Title I funds intended for low-income students must be spent on the "highly qualified" teacher provisions of the law.
Unless all sub-groups meet federal targets again next year, even more stringent federal sanctions will be imposed on the district.
What's most disconcerting is that the No Child Left Behind law has failed to accomplish one of its major goals -- closing the yawning achievement gap that separates black and Latino students on the one hand, and whites and Asians on the other.
In grades 6-8, for example, an impressive 74.7 percent of Asian students in San Francisco scored at a proficient level or higher in math. Some 64.7 percent of white students met the high standard. By contrast, a depressing 13.8 percent of African American 6th- to 8th-graders were proficient in math, and only 20.2 percent in reading.
Even though African American scores have improved in the past five years, they aren't catching up with higher-performing students. "The challenge for the district is that everyone is making the same gains, so we're not seeing a closing of the achievement gap," conceded Ky Vu, the district's director of state and federal programs.
He noted another paradox: although the district's overall test scores are higher than any other major urban district in California, the size of the achievement gap is also larger than any comparable district in the state. The gap is partly driven by the relatively high scores of students of Asian backgrounds, who represent 4 of 10 students in the district.
Educators in San Francisco are to be commended for instituting a wide range of initiatives to nudge up African American test scores. These include lengthening the school day, helping teachers develop new instructional techniques and other "enrichment" programs. "As a district we're proud of what we're doing, but we realize there is a lot of work ahead of us," Vu told us.
San Francisco and other diverse school districts cannot relent in their efforts to make sure that all students succeed. But it seems clear that it will take far more than a piece of federal legislation to close a stubborn achievement gap rooted in a potent mix of class, race, neighborhood, culture and history.
We are nowhere close to being able to declare victory.
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The Insiders: How Principals and Superintendents See Public Education Today

It's probably natural for leaders of organizations to be upbeat about their institutions. Even so, the positive, almost buoyant outlook of school leaders nationwide captured in this fourth installment of Reality Check 2006 may come as something of a surprise to reformers and critics, including regulators enforcing No Child Left Behind.

In many respects, local school leaders seem to operate on a very different wavelength from many of those aiming to reform public schools. The two groups have different assumptions about how much change today's public schools really need. Even when they see the same problems, they often seem to strive for different solutions.

To most public school superintendents (and principals to a lesser extent) local schools are already in pretty good shape. In fact, more than half of the nation's superintendents consider local schools to be "excellent." Most superintendents (77 percent) and principals (79 percent) say low academic standards are not a serious problem where they work. Superintendents are substantially less likely than classroom teachers to believe that too many students get passed through the system without learning. While 62 percent of teachers say this is a "very" or "somewhat serious"
problem in local schools, just 27 percent of superintendents say the same.

School leaders in poorer, mainly minority districts tend to have a different perspective from those in more affluent, mainly white schools. Superintendents
(67 percent) and principals (78 percent) in mainly-minority schools are more likely to say their dropout problem is serious compared to superintendents and principals in mainly-white districts (36 percent of both). Superintendents and principals in mainly minority and low-income schools are also more likely to worry about the state of math and science education locally.

Yet despite their generally positive outlook, it would be misleading to paint local school leaders as smugly satisfied with the status quo. The vast majority believe schools need more money, but money is not the only item on their "this would help" list. As a group, they have an ambitious list of proposals, but many of their goals seem to be on the policymaking backburner.

Find out more and download the full report in our special edition on Reality Check 2006: