MARSHALL - Minnesota wanted out and it got its wish Thursday when President Barack Obama freed 10 states from federal No Child Left Behind requirements.
No Child Left Behind, a 9-year-old George W. Bush-era law, requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Obama's action strips away that requirement for those approved for flexibility. That puts the ball back in the states' court. States must be able to show they will prepare children for higher education, set new targets for improving achievement among all students, develop meaningful teacher and principal evaluation systems, reward the best performing schools and focus help on the ones doing the worst.
Marshall Schools Superintendent Klint Willert said while inherently flawed and of a heavy-handed nature, No Child Left Behind was "well intended" and some good things did come out of it.
He said the law forced school leaders to work with teachers to analyze more closely sub-groups of students in ways they might not otherwise have.
"It forced us to take a hard look at what was going on," he said. "Where the flaw came in was the heavy consequences and the approach that came along with the law. We knew we had some students who weren't meeting standards, and rather than supporting schools and addressing that, the federal government continued to point out what we already knew and didn't offer support or guidance to address those needs."
Minnesota wasn't the only state critical of NCLB to the point of abandoning it and education officials here have developed an alternative plan of accountability that Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius says puts the students first.
Rather than labeling schools as failing for not meeting NCLB goals, federal education policy specialist Sam Kramer told the Independent in January that Minnesota schools could be placed into one of several categories, based on performance measures like graduation rate and reducing achievement gaps. The top 15 percent of schools would be designated "Reward Schools," and publicly recognized for their performance. The bottom 5 percent of schools would be designated "Priority Schools," and work directly with the state to improve their performance. Also, 10 percent of schools contributing to state achievement gaps would be designated "Focus Schools." Those schools would work together with their districts and the state to address the needs of low-performing student groups, including minority students, students from low-income families and special education students.
Willert likes the new approach the state is taking but said there are issues there as well.
"The top 15 percent of schools are recognized as top-tier, well, what's the difference between the top 15 and the schools that are in the 16th percentile," Willert said. "Probably not much. We're going to recognize one and not the other. That's one of the flaws you get when you sort and rank schools."
As a whole, however, Willert likes the fact that the new approach will take multiple measures into account when grading schools, as opposed to an arbitrary pass-fail setup.
"Here, the plan is looking at not only the level of proficiency but the level of student growth - education is about student growth. I think continuing to talk about graduation rates is very important; we want to make sure students are really learning, not just knowing."
Cassellius said only schools receiving Title I federal education funding would be considered for reward, priority or focus designation. Adequate Yearly Progress will continue to be tracked and reported.
A target date of six years has been set for schools to reduce the achievement gap by 50 percent.
Last year, 1,056, or 47 percent, of Minnesota's 2,255 schools failed to make the grade under NCLB. Using test results from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA), the state reported that 54 percent of high schools, 66 percent of middle schools and 45 percent of elementary schools didn't make AYP in 2011.
Members of U.S. Sen. Al Franken's staff will be in Marshall at 4 p.m. Monday at the Marshall Middle School to hear from local education officials and teachers about the effort to reform the federal "No Child Left Behind" education law. Franken is a member of the Senate Education Committee, which recently passed the bill to reform No Child Left Behind. He added several key provisions to the committee's bill, which will be sent to the full Senate for debate later this year.