No Child Left Behind designations call for more debate on education reform


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Three Iowa City schools have recently been designated as "in need of assistance" under the federal No Child Left Behind law. There is now a total of nine schools in need of assistance in the Iowa City district, which was once again labeled as a "district in need of assistance" in both math and reading.

The shortcomings of No Child have had numerous inimical effects on both our local and national education over the past decade, and local and federal governments are in the process of reforming education law – but it is not taking the precedence it deserves.

There needs to be more emphasis and debate on improving our education system this electoral season, especially as a means of investment for the long-term improvement and stabilization of the economy. And because the electoral season begins in Iowa, our citizenry can be a significant force in stimulating national discussion.

No Child mandates that any school that does not meet specific state goals (based on standardized testing) in either the "all students" or any subgroup for two-consecutive years, that school will be classified as in need of assistance. Those schools subject to sanctions must allow, and even pay for, students to transfer to other schools in the district.

Schools in need of assistance must provide transfer information to the students' parents, which has caused some to transfer from adequate and respected Iowa City schools. "It is terribly misleading," said Lucas Elementary School principal Julia Burton. "If you look at the performance of what we consider to be the top performing schools in the state, some have the [in need of assistance] designation."

West High was mentioned in Newsweek's "America's Best High Schools 2011." It is also on the 2010-11 in need of assistance list.

The designations have had many measurable consequences. Six months after the release of last year's list, 236 students in the Iowa City district exercised their transfer option. Hills Elementary lost 27 percent of its student population, putting the future viability of the school at risk, and other schools not in need of assistance have experienced overcrowding, according to an enrollment report by Assistant Superintendent Ann Feldmann.

While the transfers may have been beneficial to a relatively small number of transferring students, one can make easily make the argument that the voucher system has been detrimental to both the schools in need of assistance that are losing students (loss of teachers, potential closings) and those schools not in need that the students have transferred to (higher student-to-teacher ratio, intensified strain on limited resources).

"There are schools that it does have a significant effect," Burton told the DI Editorial Board. "I think if you lose more than 10 students, that can have an effect on your school, especially if you're a smaller-size school."

These problems are not exclusive to Iowa City, which is why the Obama administration is planning on granting waivers to states that cannot realistically meet the law's stringent requirements, effectively emancipating their schools from the 2001 legislation.

The World Affairs Council of America, the nonpartisan and largest nonprofit international affairs organization in the United States, has released its Six Top National Security Issues to be discussed at its Fall Leadership Meeting in November. The very first issue listed is titled "U.S. Education: Competing Globally."

It should go without saying that education reform is an immediate necessity, yet no one seems to be saying anything. Over the course of the two-hour presidential debate in Ames, education was hardly mentioned at all — only briefly being discussed by Herman Cain and Gov. Jon Huntsman.

So, how should our education system be reformed, specifically? "I think that the ranking of schools has become really unfortunate," said Burton. "It takes focus away from the work that's being done, and instead the only discussion is on student achievement based on test scores. There's more to student achievement than those scores. We're not measuring problem-solving skills, the ability to use technology, creativity, collaboration, communication — those aren't even being considered. We're still just focusing specifically on single assessments on math, reading, science, and social studies."

Such a complex and imperative subject cannot be glossed over and tossed aside by those aspiring to hold one of the highest executive positions in the world. The economy is clearly the dominant issue at this time, and it should be, but education and the economy are far from being mutually exclusive.

Iowa residents have the power to make this critical issue come near the forefront of political debate, at both the local and presidential levels. All we need to do is ask.

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